Monday, June 21, 2010

Learning as a chore

Token economies and other rewards systems are prevalent in schools and families. The belief being that a kind of behavioural bait-and-switch can be used to encourage or reinforce students to achieve anything from reading,  to doing their times tables or cleaning their room.

In his book Predictably Irrational, Behavioral Economist Dan Ariely describes an experiment he conducted with his students. He started by reading a few lines from Walt Witman's Leaves of Grass:
After closing the book, I told the students that I would be conducting three readings from Walt Witman's Leaves of Grass that Friday evening; one short, one medium, and one long. Owing to limited space, I told them, I had decided to hold an auction to determine who could attend. I passed out sheets of paper so that they could bid for a space; but before they did so, I had a question to ask them.

I asked half the students to write down whether, hypothetically, they would be willing to pay me $10 for a 10 minute poetry recitation. I asked the other half to write down whether, hypothetically, they would be willing to listen to me recite poetry for ten minutes if I paid them $10.

This, of course, served as the anchor. Now I asked the students to bid for a spot at my poetry reading. Do you think the initial anchor influenced the ensuing bids?

Before I tell you, consider two things. First, my skills at reading poetry are not of the first order. So asking someone to pay me for 10 minutes of it could be considered a stretch. Second, even though I asked half of the students if they would pay me for the privilege of attending the recitation, they didn't have to bid that way. They could have turned the tables completely and demanded that I pay them.

And now to the results (drum roll, please). Those who answered the hypothetical question about paying me were indeed willing to pay me for the privilege. They offered, on average, to pay me about a dollar for the short poetry reading, about two dollars for the medium poetry reading, and a bit more than three dollars for the medium poetry reading, and a bit more than three dollars for the long poetry reading. (Maybe I could make a living outside academe after all.)

But what about those who were anchored to the though of being paid (rather than paying me)? As you might expect, they demanded payment: on average, they wanted $1.30 to listen the short poetry reading, $2.70 to listen to the medium poetry reading, and $4.80 to endure the long poetry reading.
With simple manipulation, Dan Ariely was able to arbitrarily make an ambiguous experience into a pleasurable or painful one. Without ever hearing Ariely's poetry reading skills (or lack there of), their first impressions were formed based on whether they were asked to pay or be paid.
Dan Ariely concludes:


The die was cast, and the anchor was set. Moreover, once the first decision had been made, other decisions followed in what seemed to be a logical and coherent manner. The students did not know whether listening to me recite poetry was a good or bad experience, but whatever their first decision was, they used it as input for their subsequent decisions and provided a coherent pattern of responses across the three poetry readings.

Reward systems that bribe kids to learn implant a dangerous anchor. What if kids come to see learning as a mere means to an end? What if they see learning as something to only engage in if the conditions are profitable?

To further make his point, Ariely quotes Mark Twain:


Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.

What if all of our extrinsic manipulators, whether they be exorbitant rewards or ghastly punishments, are herding kids to anchor learning in as an obligation - something they ideally would never need or want to engage in?

We need to think long and hard on bait-and-switch systems that frame learning as a chore.

We may be doing far greater harm than we could ever imagine.

6 comments:

  1. I agree with you and I believe that psychological research generally supports that idea that intrinsic motivation is far superior and long lasting in terms of effect. What do you do with the students that don't have intrinsic motivation. If done properly a reward system can be used to help develop that motivation as long as it is phased out and is not the only reason why students have a certain behavior.

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  2. 1. Can you please use a different color that is darker when quoting?

    2. Can you edit things you have cited "But what about those who were anchored to the though of being"?

    3. Can you cite your source?

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  3. @Chandler - I think that identifying anyone as having ZERO intrinsic motivation for something is a very dangerous brush to be painting with. While it may be true, I would bet it is misused far more often than it is used accurately.

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  4. My (long) history with rewards, punishments and grades has taught me that in the long run they do not enhance behaviour or learning. Those who cannot overcome learning disabilities or unproductive behavioural habits simply give up the game: rewards and good grades are for others, not them and punishments convey the intrinsic reward of pride in rebellion and endurance.

    I use all three techniques still. I'd say all of us do consciously or unconsciously. They have some sort of transitory impact on my students. I believe the lasting impact on learning and positive self esteem is generated by learning itself.

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  5. I think that zero or very little motivation is arguing semantics. I disagree with the idea that intrinsic motivation and rewards are incompatible. The idea is that rewards must be done correctly, which in a traditional educational situation they are not.

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  6. "Reward systems that bribe kids to learn implant a dangerous anchor. What if kids come to see learning as a mere means to an end? What if they see learning as something to only engage in if the conditions are profitable?"

    This is why people go to college, in order to gain the necessary skills to get a JOB...reward systems teach our children to strive to work hard. The results of children not made to work hard for what they get can be seen walking along the streets in the form of 25-year-olds still living off of their parents, Grandparents financially supporting their grandkids because the parents are too lazy to get a reputable job, and people living off the state and having babies every year to gain more money from said state.

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