Friday, February 25, 2011

What message do we send when we pay kids to study?


There has been a lot of research lately on paying children to study. As a person interested in motivation and behavior, I find this whole path rather curious.

In an article and presentation Gretchen Anderson and I co-authored last year, we talked about designing for motivation. One of the tenets is to "Play Against Loss." The thought of losing something you think you have is more motivating than a potential reward that you don't yet have. People generally don't like to lose.

At Ultrinsic, we see this instantiated by their model where students bet they will get good grades. One option allows students are asked to choose the minimum grade they will achieve in a given class in a given semester. "Ultrinsic lets students set target grades and choose cash incentives based on their individual educational goals. The incentive is created by the student and Ultrinsic each contributing money to the final reward that the student can earn by achieving the target grade."

Yesterday, NPR reported on a different study, one where young children (2nd-9th grade) get paid to learn. With younger kids, the opposite approach seems to be true. In this study by Roland Fryer, he found that rewarding young children for accomplishing mini-tasks, e. g., sitting still, doing homework, is a successful motivator at this young age. It also helps in setting these behaviors early.

From the viewpoint of motivation and behavior, this is fascinating. Early rewards are successful. Later in life, allow students to set their own goals and include a risk factor to enhance motivation.

Simply thinking about education, it pains me to think that we need to get money involved to encourage kids to read, do their homework and study. Instead of rewarding them for doing unappealing tasks, what can we do to motivate and encourage them to learn? Perhaps what is broken is not our reward system, but our education system.

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