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Turning Traditional Incentives Upside Down

By Zach Lahn on November 25, 2021

What makes us do what we do? Is changing behavior simply a matter of changing the incentives? What drives a child to work hard on her own? Are certain children born with a natural work ethic or is it something learned?

At Wonder we have turned upside down most of the traditional incentive measures such as grades, attendance awards, and teacher directives. I am asked often about how we can possibly think that children will choose hard work without being told (mandated by an adult) to do so.

I’ve been fascinated by watching our young learners rise to the call of self-directed, independent learning.

My fascination with incentives has become more urgent. If we can unlock the question, “How do you get your students to work so hard on their own?” then we can effectively free children around the globe from the limiting experience of adult-dependent learning.

To understand this better, I decided to put down the books and go straight to the experts. I asked the Wonders: Why do you choose to work hard here at school?

The answers fell into three major categories:

Because I am on a hero’s journey. (i.e., the culture of Wonder)

My friends are working hard and this makes me work hard. (i.e., the community at Wonder)

Rewards. (Rewards they specifically noted: the built-in rewards of the online programs, the good feeling of achieving a goal you have set; the actual fun of working hard, and recognition in public through competition, celebrations and exhibitions.)

At Wonder, we spend the first 3-4 weeks of school building community. Who are we? What is a hero’s journey? How will we hold each other accountable? Are you ready to sign the contract – our covenant to ourselves and each other?

This foundation of knowing “what it means to be a Wonder” then gets the tangible structure of goal setting and tracking. Only then does the real work begin.

The carrot we are choosing to offer at Wonder is a belief held tightly by clear boundaries: You have genius within you and you will change the world. We will help you with our structure, guides and community – but it’s your choice. Take it or leave it. We will hold you accountable to your choice.

Purpose, choice, accountability. I’m sure there are more experienced and scholarly people who will correct me and say it is much more complicated than that. But for now, I’m going to trust in my experts. And my research will continue.

I am willing to place my life on this: When there is meaning to learning and it touches a person’s heart deeply, the choice to work hard will be a resounding, “Yes.” And why not? It’s so much fun.

[Blogs or portion of blogs may be adapted from the blog of our partner school founder and advisor, Laura Sandefer.]