Cash for Questions

Bribing children is so tempting. What they want, especially when they're young, is sometimes so cheap, so easy to acquire, that the temptation to offer them… stuff, in exchange for them doing the thing you want them to do, is just too great. And it’s as tempting for teachers as it is for parents, which is why it's become as common a practice in schools as it is in homes. That, and the fact that most people are unaware of the long-term costs.

My four year old, like most kids, loves stories. Always has. So when we were given log-in details for Pearson’s online reading programme - ‘Bug Club’ - he loved reading the stories on there too. I didn't tell him about the 'coins' that I could see him accumulating, I wanted his intrinsic enjoyment of the reading to go on for as long as possible. It came to an end last week when he was playing in the ‘rewards’ section of the site, and realised that to ‘buy’ more virtual stickers for his ‘sticker book’ he would have to read more stories to earn more 'coins'. He opened up the next book not because he wanted to read it, but because he wanted to earn coins. This might be troubling for most parents. As someone who wrote his Masters thesis on factors affecting reading motivation, it bothered me perhaps more than others.

Soma cube puzzle

50 years ago, Edward Deci gave different groups of students a Soma cube puzzle to solve. Some were paid to take part, others weren’t. When he announced that the time was up, the students that were paid to work on the task just put the cube down and walked away. The ones who weren’t paid, carried on trying to solve it. It was a straightforward result to a simple experiment, but the results have been replicated and discussed in a great deal of literature since, and led him (and Richard Ryan) to develop Self-Determination Theory, one of the cornerstones of 20th Century behavioural psychology and a key refutation of Skinner's theories of operant conditioning. But, despite a copy of my essay on the topic literally existing on a shelf somewhere deep in the UCL archives, the recent growth in extrinsic rewards offered by schools has led me to believe that people perhaps aren’t reading it as much as I’d hoped.

What Ryan and Deci found was that the use of extrinsic rewards actually serves to inhibit someone’s intrinsic motivation to perform a task. They are less likely to engage with it after the reward has been offered than had no reward been offered at all. Several things happen when you offer a cash reward for a challenging task. The presence of this ‘externally mediated’ reward shifts the locus of control from an internal to an external source. As a result the subject feels less like an agent of their own learning, and is made to feel more “like a pawn” in someone else’s game. It entirely alters their concept of why they are working, reorienting their whole attitude towards the task. In other words, when a child is enjoying a story he reads to find out what happens next. When he gets to the end of a chapter, he wants to carry on. Tell him he gets 5 coins if he reads a chapter, then once he’s done, just like Deci’s students 50 years ago, he’ll put the book down and walk away.

Rewards offered by Class Dojo. Most items are greyed out because my son has not earned enough Dojo points to buy them. He is currently sitting in an empty room until he does so.

It’s not just Bug Club. Since half-term he’s also been given log-ins to Maths Whizz and Class Dojo. This is common amongst many children these days. It is especially the case this year, as by necessity more of their world moves online, but to be honest it was happening anyway. By the age of 7 most children have accumulated more online passwords than an average 40yr old MI5 employee. It's Class Dojo that I'm finding particularly pernicious. He appears to earn points for seemingly routine good conduct at school, and we can spend them on seemingly routine family activities. Family outings, a board game, going on a play date. Imagine telling your kid he hasn’t got enough Dojo points to go on a play date? Imagine telling him he’s only got enough for a ‘high five’ (3 points)? And then of course if he spends them on the high five then it’ll take him even longer to save up for his play date. I despair.

Just like with reading, up until now he’s behaved well at school because he wants to behave well. Then we go on family outings because they’re just… good things to do. Now he’s talking about the points he’s earning, and quite quickly everything becomes wholly unnecessarily transactional. Externalising the reward drains the activities of their inherent pleasure. It serves only to reduce and cheapen experiences that he was otherwise happily taking part in simply for their own reward.

"Putting rubbish in bins"

Before registering my own offspring in life's online recognition platform, I’d previously only encountered these programmes in the secondary school where I work. Here, especially by years 9 and 10, many students have lost whatever intrinsic motivation to read they might once have had, so bribing them with gifts really is the only way to get them into the library. I'd be interested to know if the students who had given up the quickest came from the primary schools that relied most on these reward programmes. Either way, a few years ago we started handing out ‘Vivo’ points to the specimens that exhibited desirable behaviour such as answering a question in class, doing their homework, or being helpful. Students could exchange these Vivo points for a veritable cornucopia of delights, from loom bands and fidget spinners to Argos vouchers and remote control cars, depending on how many they’d accrued. It led to one of the most surreal moments in any meeting I’ve been in. It was a Child Protection review held in one of the bland, soulless offices of my local authority. My student was a chronic school refuser with ADHD, a pronounced stammer and crippling school anxiety. His Mum, who had herself been battling with substance abuse and depression, told the social worker that he had started going to school again beacuse he said he wanted to save up enough Vivo points to get a mini fridge for his bedroom. The lady from the LEA turned to me and asked me if having this aspiration was a good thing or not. After a moment’s pause, while I reflected that this wasn’t the scene I had in mind when I first became a teacher, I went on to explain: It was a good thing that he had started coming to school, but it would be a long time before he had enough points for the mini fridge, especially as none of the underlying issues were close to being resolved. Nor was he developing the skills needed in order to engage with school life to the extent of being able to earn the necessary Vivo points. So it was hard to see this current motivation being sustainable for more than a couple of weeks.

He never got the fridge.

It's a difficult one, and I'm not suggesting I have all the answers. But I'm pretty sure that if answers are out there, they'll be found in whatever is best at helping create the conditions in which the inherent enjoyment of the learning activity can naturally emerge. And it might be about removing the barriers that otherwise inhibit this. Like making sure the task is achievable for children who might generally struggle. Or making it less abstract, relating it to something familiar and relevant. Or just making it more fun, or exciting. Or memorable. The number of kids I speak to who still remember the time that writer came to their school, and how they still have the signed copy of their book, is actually remarkable. Just having the first chapter of a well-written book read to them, by someone who genuinely loves the book, for no other reason other than they just want to share it, is usually enough to get them hooked.

“Kids don’t actually want any of this shit.” I remember my co-tutor saying as we dutifully handed out novelty key rings at the start of form time one morning. And it’s true. They don't. Not really. Especially the young ones. Watch a young child interact with what's around them and you’ll see what the intrinsic pleasure of learning really is.

What they want are experiences that give them the thrill of connecting with people they look up to through play and discovery. And it’s no different for older children. Enough repetition to allow for the pleasing acquisition of mastery. Enough novelty to allow for stimulation and excitement. To spend time with someone they have a bond with, have the opportunity to co-construct an imagined world, discover new ones, find out how things work, grow.

Children are innately programmed to derive satisfaction from the activities that help prepare them for the world they're growing into. Messing with this code doesn't help.

There may well be a place for extrinsic rewards. To get someone briefly over a hurdle of reluctance, after which they can settle in to enjoying the activity without the reward. Or if the activity itself is utterly devoid of any inherent pleasure, but it still just needs to be done. Like washing your hair. Or getting vaccinated. But for the others?

I believe these programmes should come with two options to choose from at the outset. Is your child already interested in these kinds of activity? Are they still young and excited about the opportunity to just learn for learning’s sake? Do they like learning about the world around them, taking on new skills and exploring new things, and are they willing to put in some effort in order to do so? Then choose Option 1, where you’ll find interesting content presented in an accessible, engaging and helpfully sequential structure.

Or is there a sullen, jaded, uncooperative Fortnite addict slowly barricading himself in the upstairs bedroom? Then choose Option 2, where he can earn XBox gift cards, the house WiFi code and a bucket of cheap pre-landfill plastic in exchange for completing a series of tasks designed to help him leave school just about functionally literate.

No judgement intended, this happens to everyone at some point. It’s just when you see children in the former bracket offered the latter option that depresses me. Seems to hasten the journey somewhat from one to the other.

I'm aware that fighting this is one of those Canutian fights that I'm never going to actually win. My son will soon graduate from maths Whizz and Class Dojo and Bug Club, and before I know it he'll be 15 and copy pasting WWII facts from Wikipedia just so that he can earn enough Jungle Bucks to buy bags of feed for Herbert the Hungry History coursework Hippo or whatever. I don't know. I just think schools can be better than this, that's all.


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