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Posts Tagged ‘extrinsic

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I do not need to go very deep in this reflection. It is appalling how companies and states in the USA resort to extrinsic rewards and motivation to get more people vaccinated.

Cognitively I understand how this is a strategy to push the numbers closer to herd immunity. But I also understand how this rewards those who were hesitant or reluctant earlier. I understand that those who get vaccinated now might do so for the wrong reasons.

I understand the difference between asking “What is in it for me?” vs “What is good for all of us?” I understand that doing one (relying on rewards and self interest) is easier than the other (educating all about the public good). I understand how this shapes a people and defines context. 

I also understand how/why media companies highlight the negative to grab attention. But I also understand there are elements of truth in what they tell and sell. Ultimately, I understand that when you treat people like small children, it is hard to take those people seriously even if they claim to grow up.

The latest Build for Tomorrow podcast episode focused on the problem of participation trophies. These are the prizes that kids in the USA get even if they do not win in sports or games.

Podcast host, Jason Feifer, got to the issue quickly. One problem was not that they were given. It was the perception that such trophies are a recent phenomenon and something that contributed to the detriment of character.

By now, any regular listener of the podcast would know where the rest of the episode was heading. Participation trophies are not unique to the present and they do not lead to spineless or weak-willed adults.

Of particular interest to educators might be two interpretations from research about the impact of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Starting around the 32min 30sec mark, researcher Dan Gould summarised how such extrinsic motivations depress intrinsic ones.

However, there was also other research that revealed that kids were less motivated by external rewards (particularly if they were not meaningful) from age 13 onwards. So these incentives might be good for conditioning behaviours of younger children, but they are futile thereafter.

Both strengthen my long-held stance on badges, particularly for adult learners. In an attempt to “gamify” learner, some instructional designers and teachers might design challenge-based tasks and assessments. But if these are primarily extrinsic and not meaningful to the learner, they are setting both themselves and their students up for failure.

I cannot remember the last time I had to advise a novice instructor to avoid relying on extrinsic rewards.

Out of almost 70 novices under my direct care this semester, I spotted one because of a statement in his lesson plan. He said that he would reward each student with a drink at the end of the lesson.

I could understand his rationale: The drink had something to do with the lesson, so what was the harm?

I advised him not to do this by commenting on his lesson plan assignments. The new instructor followed up by email to ask why I was making a big deal about a non-issue (those are not his words, they are mine).

I am glad he did because it showed he was thinking about my comments. They created cognitive dissonance. He asked for clarification and here is my email reply sans greetings and closing.

There are several longer-term behaviours that stem from extrinsic rewards. I will mention just two.

One is the expectation you might create in learners. They became dependent on such motivations and/or make comparisons among instructors who do or do not depend on extrinsic rewards.

The other is the instructor paying for these rewards financially and pedagogically. The former payment is buying these items out of pocket; the latter is growing dependent on such schemes to compensate for poor pedagogy.

The issue is not whether your planned action is a single instance or whether it might be an example of sustained behaviour. The issue is what such behaviour represents when planned in a lesson — it is an unquestioned continuation of what you might seen modelled before. Just because something seems like it is a good idea does not mean it is.

If you wish to “create a memorable impact”, consider whether you want your students to remember the lesson because they received a gift, or because they learnt a meaningful skill or possess a powerful insight.

The issue of extrinsic rewards is an early lesson is most introductory educational psychology courses. It is introduced to primary school teachers, but some still ignore it because they teach as they were taught by teachers before and around them.

The issue of extrinsic rewards (and the larger issue of learner motivation) is not a focus on the crash course that my learners explore. But I am glad that the opportunity comes up, albeit rarely, so that I can make an impact on one future instructor. All without an extrinsic reward.

Yesterday I hit Level 40 in Pokémon Go (Pogo). This is a significant milestone because there are only 40 levels in this game.

My Level 40 profile as viewed in a raid gym.

To reach this level, I had to accrue 20 million experience points (XP) by grabbing them wherever and whenever I could in the game.

Even though this is a difficult task, others have reached this level before me. Some use bots to harvest or unsanctioned tools to spoof their location. These “players” are so common that I can often be at a remote gym and be the only person in sight.

Thankfully there are people who play the game legitimately. I have met local “uncles” and “aunties” who met this milestone long before me. (Who am I kidding? I am an uncle myself!)

Younger folks might argue that the older folk have more spare time on their hands. And that they do. I played strategically in terms of time and how to maximise XP gains, but it still took me 20 months to reach Level 40.

For some, this milestone is the finish line — game over. However, it is not the end of the game for me. I am relying on a mix of extrinsic and intrinsic factors to keep playing the game.

Niantic, the parent company of Pogo, releases legendary Pokémon in raid battles roughly once a month. There are also monthly Community Days that promise the chance of catching shiny variants of Pokémon. The company also has a few more generations of Pokémon to release in the game.

I no longer need to grind for XP in the game. However, I will continue to look for the best of every type of Pokémon in terms of their IVs. I will also keep levelling up the Pokémon that have relevance in the meta game [examples] because they help in gym battles.

I also do not have some of the regional Pokémon. This is one more incentive to travel.

My game play reflects my learning philosophy. There are goals that someone else might define for me, and if I share these goals, I pursue them. But I do not stop there because that is a short-term learning strategy. I take ownership of the what, how, and why I learn.

Niantic owns Pokémon Go, but I own the way I play the game. Likewise, someone other entity might own the rights to a learning resource, but I own the learning process.

This article would like you to believe that students in the US are motivated by extrinsic rewards to do well in tests.

According to the article, a team of academics from the US and China conducted research on the math abilities of students from both countries. The students took a “25-minute test of 25 math questions that had previously been used on PISA”.

The treatment groups were given “envelopes filled with 25 one-dollar bills and told that a dollar would be removed for every incorrect or unanswered question”. The incentive was to get as many questions right as possible to receive the highest monetary reward.

Source: National Bureau of Economic Research

According to the article:

  • The incentives did not significantly impact the students from Shanghai, China.
  • The students from the US were more likely to attempt more questions and get more answers right with incentives.
  • The incentivised US student performance was equivalent to a PISA finish of 19th place instead of the actual 36th place out of 60 countries.

The researchers concluded that poor PISA test results could be due more to apathy than a lack of ability.

Tests like PISA — which have no impact on students’ grades or school accountability measures — aren’t taken as seriously as federally mandated assessments or the SAT.

All that said, the article ignored another important trend in the data: The less academically inclined students — see School 1 Low and School 1 Regular — did not do as well and were not as motivated even with incentives.

While this seems obvious even without the benefit of data, this casts light on the largely non-transparent method of how students are selected for PISA.

In OECD’s 2015 report, China was represented by Macao, Hong Kong, and special combination of Beijing-Shanghai-Jiangsu-Guangdong (B-S-J-G). China was in the top 10 for math and science test results.

Both the comparative study and the China selection results raise questions about the selection of students for the PISA tests. For example, this Forbes article asked if PISA results could be “rigged” as a result of such selections.

If officials make disproportionate selections from rich cities, then suspicions of bias are valid. Students with higher socio-economic status have more opportunities in schooling and have access to better resources than those propping them up in the lower rungs. Such students are more likely to do better in tests.

There are guidelines for selecting students for PISA testing. However, there is seems to be enough wiggle room for officials to get creative (see Malaysian example in the Forbes article).

Officials wanting to boost rankings can manipulate the selection seemingly within guidelines. For example, imagine a system with 100 schools. All 100 cannot participate for pragmatic reasons, e.g., students are not available or unwilling, resources are poor, scheduling is inconvenient, schools see no benefits, etc. So the officials resort to stratifying the random sampling of students. This means selecting certain schools within each band, i.e., low, regular, high-performing.

Officials might select students the higher performing schools from each band or maximise the sample for the potentially highest performers while minimising the selection from the likely lowest performers. In all cases, the students are still randomly selected from the pool, but there is stratification of the pool by bands and percentages.

This practice is not transparent to the layperson or perhaps even the reporters that write news articles. But the PISA results are lauded whenever they are released and policymakers make decisions based on them. Should we not be watchdogs not just for the validity of PISA tests, but also for how students are selected to take them?

Teachers, and teacher educators in particular, should never take for granted the long-term impact of what they say and model when they teach.

Every semester I provide feedback on the lesson plans of future faculty. I also evaluate their ability to facilitate a short lesson using learner centric strategies.

Every semester a few cases will require me to correct a well-intentioned but ultimately harmful practice — the use of extrinsic rewards like chocolate or other candy. I provide this feedback to adults who might have experienced such extrinsic rewards in their primary or elementary schooling 15 to 20 years ago.

This teach-as-they-were-taught mindset is frighteningly common. I observed this when I was a full-time teacher educator over 10 years. I fought to break this mindset then and I still fight it today. I do this by citing critical research and reflective teaching practice.

One rationale for avoiding extrinsic rewards is the matter of pragmatism. It is costly to keep doing this, it establishes the wrong set of expectations, it taps the wrong source of motivation, and it distracts from learning outcomes.

One argument that my learners might state is that students need to develop an internal drive. They claim that their candy rewards are an attempt to move from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation.

I gently but firmly tell them this is bullshit. A reliance on extrinsic rewards is a learnt behaviour, not an inherent trait. Kids learn by watching some other child get rewards or by experiencing it first hand.

I do not mean that extrinsic rewards do not work. They can, for a short-term behaviour modification. However, they also set up an insidious longer term expectation and establish this as acceptable practice.

Being well-intentioned is not enough. Teaching practice needs to be informed by critical research and reflective practice. Both focus on the long game that is not fuelled by mere candy.

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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