Sunday, January 31, 2016

Award Systems: Motivational or Problematic?

 Award systems abound lately.  You can earn points for spending money at certain establishments. You can earn cash back for using certain credit cards.  I recently read an advertisement for a company who was offering a free television in exchange for a furniture purchase.  I find this proliferation of award system quite ironic since we seem have to abolished award systems for kids in school. Remember the days of Principal's List and Honor Roll?  I abolished overt award systems in my classroom years ago. Gone are the days when each student earned a certain number of classroom bucks for engaging in behaviors I selected as important to my classroom structure.  So why all of a sudden do I see award systems everywhere?  There has been an explosion of award systems in school as delivered through applications such as Class Dojo, Achieve3000, and TenMarks.  How about the new system of awarding badges to teachers?  Are we just re-naming our old award systems?  Aren't these new point and badge systems just a modern version of Principal's List and Honor Roll? What do these systems say about how we feel about the learning opportunities we are offering our students? Do these award systems, whether it be points on Class Dojo or badges for using applications, build intrinsic or extrinsic motivation?  

Once again my students teach me a lesson, and this time it is about award systems.   As a result of one of my students hitting the 1000 point mark in his Achieve3000 work, he asked how he was going to be rewarded.  I gave him a candy.

This child was very happy with his candy, until...his friends asked him how he got the candy.  Pretty soon he and a group of trusted peers presented me with several reasons why a piece of candy was not going to cut it in this case.  The main reason given was: "Can we all have candy?  I have 5000 points, shouldn't I get 5 candies?  The same kids get the candy, every.time.we.have.a.candy.award.system! The kids who read fast will get all the candy.  What about those of us who take our time?"  During their questioning it occurred to me that while I was not ever offered candy for doing my job, other ways I have been rewarded have raised my own hackles! Offers of early release time, while given in a positive spirit, cause me to have to do more work-the very thing I just got awarded for! Offers to "pay me in points" for exercising irks me, too.  I do not need to be bribed to stay in shape. I do it for myself, my family, and my job. I won't buy furniture from the company offering free televisions because I worry their product must be cheaply made, otherwise they would not be bribing me to buy it!

And there folks, lies the rub of the issue!  What is motivation and how do we maximize it? What message do we send about something if it comes attached to points, badges, candies, or homework passes?  Several folks have published articles, books, and research on the topic of motivation.  I encourage you to read Del Siegle and Betsy McCoach's work on underachievement and motivation. A good place to start is via this website:  Spotlight: Strategies for Inspiring Underachieving Students

However, this video from Daniel Pink on carrots and sticks is the most highly recommended.

So, you are probably wondering what I did after making the candy mistake.  Well, I called a class meeting.  I wanted to know if the students thought an award system necessary, and if so, what type of system should be implemented.  Here is a photo of one of the charts we used in the early stages of brainstorming the issue.

A small committee (of students) created a student poll.  Poll results indicated students in both classes wished for an award system.  As of Friday, the students were in the midst of developing the system. Think they will appreciate the awards?  Think they will actually increase efforts to earn Achieve3000 points?  I do, on both counts.  Why?  Because the award system was designed by participants for participants.  Now that I have deeply immersed students in the personalized learning environment, each student feels compelled to participate in the learning.  Now that they are invested, I should not have made assumptions about what will continue to motivate them.  Lesson learned.

What thoughts about award systems, motivation, or personalized learning does this blog post bring about for you?


1 comment:

  1. Update on Achieve3000 award system: The awards committee, made up of 5 boys from my homeroom and 3 boys and 2 girls from Mr. K's class, created a 2nd poll representing ideas for individual and class rewards. Students voted for a class-wide system to be established first. All students are now working toward earning a class party when they achieve 20,000 points. An added bonus of this, students are helping each other by acting as peer tutors and mentors. I am monitoring to be sure students aren't doing the work for each other!

    Now the committees are working on an individual award system. It is neat to see the level of collaboration and communication rise as a result of the students working together on a project they chose to complete.