Another dot in the blogosphere?

Don’t gamify BYO

Posted on: September 27, 2017

According to this STonline article about a bring your own (BYO) receptacle initiative at a school:

Pupils get a sticker each time they use their own containers or bottles when they order food in the canteen. They get a certificate of achievement once they collect 10 stickers.

Some adults might not question the practice of providing extrinsic rewards to children for doing what is right.

The initiative is an example of uncritical design that relies on an element of gamification to modify behaviour — immediate reward for desirable effort.

The stickers might not only obscure the point of BYO, they might also perpetuate childish mindsets (see screenshot about tray returns below). I wonder if the organisers started planning with these questions:

  • Why start with stickers?
  • Why assume kids want or need these stickers?
  • Why start with the assumption that young children do not understand the importance of BYO?
  • Why perpetuate novelty and extrinsic rewards?
  • What is the long term plan to wean them off rewards?

This sticker-for-BYO initiative may not have learnt from an older initiative to get children to save money in a bank.

When I was a student, the Post Office Savings Bank (POSB) started a scheme in which children exchanged money for postage stamps that they would stick on a form (see what this looked like)*. A teacher collected the forms and money was transferred to the child’s bank account. Sounds like fun, right?

*In researching this scheme and “time-travelling” to my childhood, I discovered that we might have learnt this from the British who started it in the 1950s.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b1/Post_Office_Savings_Bank_deposit_slip.jpg

Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

It was an interesting novelty at first. Students could look forward to breaks from dreary lessons, but it soon became a chore. To add insult to injury, even a child could question the link between postage stamps and money in one’s savings account. The post office was an unnecessary middleman, but someone killed two KPIs with one blow.

That is what some gamified schemes and initiatives do in schooling — they look good on paper and are administratively innovative. However, they are short-term plans that do more harm than good. The POSB stamp savings scheme did not last and stamps are practically collectors’ items now.

But wait, someone revived it for the 21st century! I could go on another rant that we do not seem to learn from our mistakes. We rely too much on what educational psychologists call operant conditioning. Take this recent example of incentivising tray returns at new hawker centre, for example.

Instead of being seduced by over-simplified gamification, the designers of initiatives could start with the end in mind, instead of the ends justify the means.

In the case of BYO, children should learn early to do good for goodness sake, not for stickers. The effort then goes to education programmes and showcasing evidence of change. A long term problem requires a sustainable set of solutions, not a plaster-like sticker.

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