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Monday 2 June 2014

Prizes for all? Why aren't rewards working?

I frequently discuss this issue with teachers, in particular, new teachers and TTOCs. What is acceptable for  'rewards' and when should they be used?

As a parent, I do not give my daughter allowance or rewards for doing what she is supposed to do... make her bed, take dishes to the sink, keep her room clean, do her homework... those are things she needs to do. Now, if she does additional chores or helps out above her own responsibilities, there are sometimes thank-yous such as a verbal thanks, an ice cream, a mall date... but I digress...

When do rewards work and how do rewards work, if at all? I found this article that examines the use of rewards and why they do not work.

“Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.”
Lewis Carroll’s Dodo, Alice in Wonderland

“When the new system was introduced, one of my pupils shouted: ‘You get points just for showing up! What does that teach us?’ Looking later at the stats, I noticed that the top five reward earners were the worst behaved students in the entire school. Prizes were simply being used as a way of getting kids to do what they should be doing anyway, rather than to reward students for going the extra mile. The attitude was ‘oh well, I’ll get more later anyway, I can’t be bothered to answer these questions, so I won’t’. That’s when it struck me: giving out unmerited rewards all the time actually legitimised their poor behaviour.”

A couple of stories from economic research can enlighten us as to why incentives backfire:
‘When people were given a small stipend for donating blood rather than simply praised for their altruism, they actually donated less blood. The stipend turned a noble act of charity into a painful way to make money, and it simply wasn’t worth it.’
‘Nursery schools started fining parents who turned up late to pick up their children at 4pm. The result was striking: the number of late pick-ups more than doubled.’
 There are two main types of incentives: economic, and social or moral. The fine and the stipend backfired because they substituted an economic incentive for a moral incentive. 
Daniel Pink, author of 'Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us' says what really motivates us is masterypurpose and autonomy. Deci‘s psychological research suggests competence, relatedness and autonomy are the key ingredients, although to my knowledge these are nowhere in the research split out and measured for their relative importance.
I’d build on this and suggest that pupils develop their intrinsic motivation through three nutrients: masteryresponsibility and relationships. I think responsibility is a more foundational nutrient for young primary and secondary school pupils than autonomy; that you can’t be truly autonomous until you’ve achieved responsibility for your choices and their consequences.

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