Category Archives: Motivation

Intrinsic Versus Extrinsic Motivation

One parent wrote of Color Me Purple: “The knowledge box about “Passion and Practice” resonated most with me today. Towards the bottom of page 13, you wrote, ‘Extrinsic motivations feed a student’s intrinsic motivation to work at becoming better. The challenge for teachers and parents is to encourage practice without killing intrinsic motivation.’ As I read that, I thought to myself, ‘Ain’t that the truth?!?’”

She went on to explain the fine line between encouraging and discouraging her 10-year-old son’s intrinsic interest in piano: “I’d noticed that he’d been spending a lot of his free time messing around at the piano whenever he had a spare moment, plunking out songs that he was attempting to sight read from music we happened to have laying around, or just playing by ear. I suggested to him that we set up piano lessons, and he agreed to give it a try. But, when songs were giving him trouble, he quickly became frustrated, and wanted to give up and quit. It became a battle for me to try to convince him to keep practicing.

“That’s when I realized that he was no longer playing JOYFULLY as he had been when he was playing for HIMSELF rather than playing to please someone else. As much as I value the important life lesson of developing grit and perseverance, I also want to value and honor my son’s desire to do what makes him happy, and I want to be sure that I am helping to nurture his talent rather than squelch it! One day he approached me calmly and explained to me that he LIKES playing the piano but that he does NOT LIKE taking lessons. He promised that if I would let him quit piano lessons he would continue playing on his own, for fun. So that’s what we did.

“Now he is playing the piano more than ever — by himself on his own terms. He’s not shying away from challenge either. I hadn’t realized that adding extrinsic pressure would threaten his intrinsic motivation in such an extreme way, and I’m relieved that we were able to restore his intrinsic desire to pursue his music smart!”



Color Me Purple

“Color Me Purple,” my just-published 2016 children’s book, illustrated by Madison artist Donna Parker, is a fictionalized story of real kids from Wisconsin. Some of the characters are based on a single child. Many of them are composites of several children. All of these children were lucky because someone recognized that they had a talent. In addition, that someone did something about it. Whatever the child’s economic, ethnic, or social background, and whether he or she was thriving or starting to slip through the cracks in school, someone said, “It’s time to intervene, to encourage this child to become all that he or she can become!”

Children are smart in many different ways. Yet, too often, they are stereotyped based on their deficits and discouraged in their learning rather than encouraged. Color Me Purple is intended to help children and those who care for them understand that it is good to be smart. They can be proud of what they do well. They should work to use and improve their abilities rather than let them languish. They can dream big. But dreaming big alone is not enough. As their support systems help them to gain confidence and feel good about themselves they can hone their skills, define their goals, and help themselves and others to say “yes” to thriving in a multicolored, multicultural, multitalented world.

I have written this book as a way to help children, along with their teachers, parents, and caregivers, understand that there are many, many children who should be encouraged for different combinations of talents or kinds of smart. Based on the theory of multiple intelligences by Dr. Howard Gardner of Harvard University, the story presents 8 children between the ages of 7 and 18, from 8 different ethnic backgrounds, who are smart in 8 different ways. Text boxes, interspersed throughout the book, explain the educational and psychological theories behind the story for readers who wish to delve deeper into the concepts being introduced.

From the last chapter, a bit of what has occurred in the main character’s thinking is presented: “Before the whole Kennedy thing came up, I was just me. Remember? I’m browned-eyed, brown-skinned, and so on? I thought I was ordinary, and in some ways I am. So are Kennedy and Sameer, Bambi and the others. I’m glad to know that we can be ordinary and smart at the same time… There is so much more to me than what you see on the outside. What makes me smart is that I like thinking about hard questions in about the same way Gommgi likes playing the piano…


I am happy in this rainbow world of smartness. I’m learning about my inside colors. I think they are what make me the me I want to be.”

To meet Angie, Kennedy, Sammy, Bambi, and the others, you can buy “Color Me Purple” by contacting me at Directions are on the “Contact Ellie Books” page.

Redshirting: How to Make a Bad System Worse

In school, there is a standard curriculum that is offered to all learners who are grouped according to age. This is an antiquated system, but it is the way we have been doing it since the industrial revolution, and—as I’ve written before, changing that system is not happening. Instead, it seems, it’s being exacerbated. On a recent edition of “60 Minutes,” Morley Safer examined the practice of redshirting children for kindergarten. Redshirting is defined at the beginning of the interview as “holding your 5-year old back from kindergarten until he’s 6 so he’ll be among the oldest and smartest in class.” One parent elaborated that she preferred her son be older in kindergarten so he would become a leader rather than be younger and a follower. All this was news to me—older equals smarter and leader.

Safer suggests that a sharp increase in redshirting is a direct response by parents to Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “Outliers.” I was disturbed by this book when I read it, not because of Gladwell’s premises as much as by his conclusions. Gladwell’s comments on this show make me even more appalled. In January 2010, I quoted from the book regarding Gladwell’s observation that smart children studied by Lewis Terman who happened to be poor did not “make a name for themselves” as adults because “they lacked something that could have been given to them if we’d only known they needed it: a community around them that prepared them properly for the world.” Gladwell saw them as squandered talent and I agree with him that they didn’t need to be.

Redshirting, however, is not helping poor children but most likely putting them at greater disadvantage. As the show pointed out, low-income parents can neither afford to hold their children back nor to send them to private schools. Redshirting is not “putting a community around them.”

I agree with Samuel Meisels, President of the Erikson Institute, who on the show calls redshirting “educational quackery.” I believe in “cumulative advantage” but not in the way Gladwell defines it. Cumulative advantage does not imply that older is better or that the older a child the greater his or her leadership potential. It means carefully planning special, supplemental educational experiences, starting early in school and continuing into college, graduate school, and professional life. It means studying deeply and broadly. It happens when students are introduced purposefully to concepts, programs, activities, career possibilities, and people, who in turn introduce them to more and more possibilities until the right one clicks. It happens when their learning activities are aligned with their interests, abilities, and motivations.

I agree with Meisels that children need a level playing field and that they develop at different rates. It is true that cumulative advantage is about being in the right place at the right time, and that it usually does not happen by coincidence. Ideally, we would be putting all children in the right place at the right time. The only way we are going to prevent the kind of squandered talent that Gladwell deems unfortunate is to open more and more doors of opportunity.

At its foundation, educational opportunity should not mean forcing all kids to learn the same curriculum at the same pace and with the same strategies—whatever their age. Let them start at age 3 if they are ready and a kindergarten classroom is where they’ll best develop. Let them start at age 6 if they are not ready and a delayed start will mean a better fit with the learning environment when they are ready.

May bullying and boredom never become a part of the conversation! Oh, my mistake, Meisels pointed out that behavioral problems and boredom are already being detected in these opposite-of-pushed children. I’ll not go there—for now.

Let Us Find and Motivate More Smart Kids

An article in the October 2 New York Times highlighted the success of an incentive program in which low income high schoolers are taking AP courses and earning college credit with high scores on the AP exams. The article emphasizes a rising concern that students and teachers are earning cash incentives as one part of a program that also provides teacher training, student tutoring, and lab equipment. I wonder how many people read it like I did — with a feeling of “YES, another story showing that ‘smart kids’ are not just a tiny predetermined group, but rather children from all economic, racial, and cultural backgrounds!”

One teacher from Massachusetts increased his AP class size by 8 times, and 70% of his new, enlarged student population received the necessary 3’s on the AP exam to receive college credit; 25% received a 5, the top score possible. One of the students who got a 5 reported that the after-school and Saturday classes and tutoring sessions helped a lot. When asked about the $100 incentive for getting at least a 3, he said,“There’s something cool about the money. It’s a great extra.”

The fact is, money or no money, the teachers in the program are believing in the kids and the kids, in turn, are believing in themselves. The statistics speak for themselves. A teacher in Arkansas had 9 kids in his AP math class 3 years ago, all the children of professionals. This year 65 kids from his math classes earned college credit with scores of 3 and higher. Organizers of the initiative say that over three years, the program has led to nearly 38,000 AP exams being taken in math, science and English, many of them by black and Hispanic students.

At the same time, an article recently published by the Association for Psychological Science rightly emphasizes that public schools must do a better job of identifying gifted students. It states, “the former president of CalTech observed that one truly excellent scientist is more valuable than 1,000 very good scientists.” Generalizing the statement to any field — writing, sports, investment — the author observes that the most gifted are not only very rare, but also existing within a large pool of high potential candidates, many of whom are not recognized for their potential. He points to opportunity and motivation as necessary to talent development, noting, “cases are legion in which the most unexpected individuals, confronted with a major challenge, rise brilliantly to the occasion.”

Money has not been a part of every equation where disadvantaged students have been given opportunity and motivation. In the new AP initiative, money may be a part of the motivation, but the results are clear. Whatever the motivation, it works. I heartily endorse any program that lets more students show they are smart. Who knows, one of those students may one day have the opportunity to show that he or she is the one who is so truly excellent as to be “more valuable” (we’ll worry about this definition later) than the 1,000 who are very good.