Another dot in the blogosphere?


Posted on: February 28, 2016

Over the last week or so, I detected pockets of excitement in the edu-Twitterverse about providing badges for teachers after “training” or professional development.

I think badges are a BAD idea and I would like to badger teachers into thinking critically about this practice.

What is wrong with rewarding effort with badges?

First, it is the idea that extrinsic motivation should be necessary to keep learning and trying.

Second, this process is a model and encourages a behaviour among teachers that they continue with students.

It is important to realise that intrinsic motivation is what actually drives learning over the long term. As serendipity would have it, I came across an article by The Atlantic about the perils of sticker charts, i.e., giving children stickers, points, or other extrinsic rewards for work done.

Badges, stickers, and their ilk create a reward economy in which learners trade desired behaviour for rewards. They learn to expect a prize for good behaviour and not to give anything away for free. This can undermine a child’s intrinsic motivation. Rewards can cause a learner to lose focus on the important change in behaviour in pursuit of the prize instead.

The Atlantic article pointed out that this applied to the adult world too:

Duke University professor Dan Ariely has found that… market norms tend to overpower social norms, shifting the focus from relationships to commerce.

Ariely provided an example from his life as a professor:

He once worked at a university that used a point system to ensure that faculty members met their teaching requirements. Once he learned the formula for receiving points, Ariely figured out how to maximize it, effectively doing as little as possible to get the most points. “I managed to get 112 points by teaching just one class a year. I had one class with lots of students and lots of [teaching assistants],” he said. “So I just optimized [the formula].”

It is important to question the assumptions and the foundations of any teaching practice. Earlier I questioned the use of emoticon exit tickets. Today I question badges for professional development.

A reliance on extrinsic rewards by uncritical training programme providers reinforces this practice instead of drawing out critical questions about it. Questions like: 

  • Why are you doing it? For a trinket? For recognition?
  • Does a professional need such extrinsic motivations?
  • Should a teacher perpetuate such practice?

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