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Posts Tagged ‘rewards

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.

Previously I shared my rationale for playing the long game in PokémonGo. I urged educators to think more along the lines of imparting authentic values and thinking skills instead of artificially-constrained content.

I have played PokémonGo for just over a month. I have hatched a few 10km eggs over that time. I as focused on levelling up XP (experience points), I have noticed the eggs providing rarer and more valuable Pokémon.

My latest reward was the very rare Snorlax.

My Snorlax

I did this without cheating: No jailbreaks, no location spoofing, no sharing of account information, etc. I did not have to join a crazy mob behaviour to get one either.

Video source

I did not play the game fanatically, I played it consistently. I did what I could to level up, I ensured the game was open when I walked, and I did not seek instant gratification.

This did not mean I did not have fun because there is so much to do beyond the farming and candy-ing of Pidgeys, Rattatas, and Weedles.

The enjoyment of the Snorlax, knowing the effort that I put into it, is more than what I would have if I used a cheat strategy for a quick reward.

That alone is an important model for my son as he was with me as we walked home and the Snorlax egg hatched. We stopped walking, ooh-ed and ahh-ed, and discussed its stats. I also reminded him how playing the long game had its in-game and moral rewards.

It will take more than one Snorlax for that message to sink in. My son will need to do the same to experience the process and reward for himself. It is perhaps the road less travelled, but that is reward in itself.

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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