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No, I’ve not had a good Xmas … and it’s John McLear’s fault! December 29, 2011

Posted by IaninSheffield in Musings, Reading, research.
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Punished by rewards
It’s John McLear’s fault for unsettling me over the Christmas break. It was he who suggested I ought to read Alfie Kohn’s book “Punished by Rewards” as he felt it might inform the work I was doing towards ICT Quests. The subtitle gives you a clue as to the basic premise of Kohn’s thesis – “The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes.” In essence that much of what we do to reward, incentivise, celebrate and acknowledge the achievements of our students, actually has a detrimental effect in terms of student learning and their commitment to good values. A rewards-based system promotes extrinsic motivation or ‘Do this and you’ll get that’, the result being that much of what students do is geared towards and directed by those rewards. The question then arises’ what happens when those rewards are no longer available for whatever reason? Maybe they move into a higher year group where gold stickers are no longer appropriate, maybe they have a new teacher from whom praise is less forthcoming or they leave formal education and no longer have grade’s to strive for. Furthermore, that providing rewards has been shown to stifle creativity and problem solving capacity and discourage risk-taking.

The key is doing all we can to nurture intrinsic motivation where students have a genuine interest in their endeavours, relish challenges and display greater innovativeness. We want students to want to learn, rather than wanting to be rewarded for their learning. A student choosing to produce a piece of artwork and work at it out of class of his own volition or solving a maths problem she read in a newspaper because it’s challenged her thinking, is far more important than a student aiming to get an ‘A’ for a piece of coursework … or avoid getting an ‘F.’ When the grade becomes the significant element, then shortcuts are taken to achieve that grade, paths of least resistance (and lower challenge) become preferable and interesting diversions will be ignored – “Will this be on the test miss?” To get students engrossed in their learning, it is far more effective to encourage them to think about what they are doing, rather than how wellthey are doing compared with everyone else.

bling my grade

cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo by DavidDMuir: http://flickr.com/photos/daviddmuir/583377693/

Oh dear! Not only have several of the behaviours I exhibited as a teacher been shown to be rather less than beneficial, but the ICT Quests model I’m working on might be fatally flawed, linked as it is to a badge-based ‘rewards’ system (Thanks for pointing that out John!). So have I dropped a clanger by devising a system in which completing each step in a sequence of tasks results in the ‘reward’ of a badge. Well, maybe; I’d certainly be interested to hear what Alfie thinks! But I’m going to say no for four reasons:

  • Students will be undertaking the ICT Quests as a result of their own interest or desire, not through any element of compulsion. They will be in control; they will make the choice to opt in.
  • They will also have choice of the level to which they wish to progress and to some degree, choice in what they produce for the output from the tasks.
  • The intention is that the badges needn’t be perceived as rewards. They are more correctly seen as markers; indicators to other people of the range of skills possessed by the student displaying those badges – a ‘can-do profile’ if you will.
  • Badges won’t be awarded with a ‘well done’ pat on the back. They are merely indicators showing that a set of criteria have been met.

Well they’re the intentions at any rate, though there will clearly need to be some work done as the project is rolled out to achieve a common understanding with participants … given the rewards and achievement based culture within which we come together. (And I’m now going to be looking in far more detail at the positive AND negative effects of leaderboards before I include them)

I think Mark Twain pretty much had it nailed when he had Tom whitewashing the fence.

[If you want a brief overview, here’s a PDF of an interview in which Alfie Kohn discusses the underlying themes in ‘Punished…’]

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Comments»

1. Ian Addison (@ianaddison) - January 7, 2012

I despise extrinsic rewards and wrote my dissertation on them when I was at university. Children don’t really like them either. We just give out stickers and certificates but I’ve found that lots of children don’t want them. I asked my old class of year 3 children what they thought and they said they were happy when they did a good piece of work or when they were proud of it or when I praised them (Yes, I know this is a reward, but you know what I mean), and that was enough for me. So we stopped giving extrinsic rewards and just got on with our learning instead.

ianinsheffield - January 7, 2012

Thanks for the feedback Ian.

In the right atmosphere, learning is indeed ‘reward’ enough in itself – you’ve clearly cultivated that in your own classroom(s?). Kohn was quite clear on the detrimental effects that rewards can cause, especially over longer periods of time. He did recognise however, that under certain circumstances, and with the right safeguards, they could be used with discretion.

What I’m wrestling with I guess, is the positive benefits that the points/rewards/leaderboard/feedback/progression/challenge/celebration of success, aspects of gaming introduce and how best to integrate them into learning environments … or indeed *if* we should.

Struggling at the moment to find research which substantiates the positive benefits of the latter … maybe there isn’t any!


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