incentives in schooling (and games)

Time has a fascinating article up about the use of monetary incentives in schooling.

The first thing that struck me was the title: “Should Kids Be Bribed to Do Well in School?” I was glad to see my immediate response echoed during the article. As Fryer points out, we do this all the time as adults; we give bonuses and raises and other forms of monetary reward to employees who do their jobs well. So why is it “bribery” when we offer kids the same kind of incentive we give ourselves? Granted, there are differences between work and school; your son’s math test isn’t used for any purpose other than judging how well he understands math. It doesn’t feed (directly) into a larger economy of labor. And there is definitely merit in learning for the love of learning — as the article duly describes. But the difference is maybe not as absolute as people assume.

What really gets fascinating is the finer-grained material, the evidence for what works and what doesn’t. Rewarding kids for good test grades? Not helpful. Not because they don’t care enough to try and earn the reward; they do. But they don’t know how. Test scores, to the type of kids this study worked with, are not sufficiently under their control. They don’t see how to get from where they are to where they want to be, because the educational system has already failed them on that front. It appears to be more useful to target the things the kid knows are under her control, like attendance, good behavior, and the successful exercise of skills she already possesses. That lays the groundwork for the belief that other things — like test scores — can also be controlled. Education is a game she can win.

I use that phrasing because this morning’s blog-crawl produced a semi-terrifying juxtaposition between that article and a piece on, about 5 Creepy Ways Video Games Are Trying to Get You Addicted. It lays out how MMOs (which operate on a subscription model) use psychological tricks to make you keep playing, even when it isn’t fun. Which is all about incentives and reward.

Maybe if we ran our schools more like MMOs . . . ?

0 Responses to “incentives in schooling (and games)”

  1. ninja_turbo

    Maybe if we ran our schools more like MMOs . . . ?

    That part reminds me of the Jane McGonigal TED talk about making the world a better place through Moar Gaming.

  2. electricpaladin

    I’m working with a lot of this in my classroom. I do a weekly “progress update.” Every week, a coded card posted on a side bulletin board tells my kids what their grades are for their Do Now, Participation, Exit Slip, Homework, Tests, and Overall. I often have to stress to my kids that of the five grades, four of them are entirely under their control. If they want a better grade but have a hard time with my quizzes, all they have to do is do more of their work.

    • Marie Brennan

      Or come talk to you about the work — because beating your head against a set of sample problems doesn’t help if you don’t understand how to do them in the first place. The article doesn’t explore that angle too deeply (because otherwise it would turn into an 800-page dissertation on Everything That’s Wrong With Our Educational System), but a lot of these kids on the bottom end of the scale don’t have a good handle on the multiple resources they can use to improve their results.

  3. juvenile_philos

    Here’s a TED Talk about when monetary rewards are a good idea and when they’re not.

    • Marie Brennan

      I have so many TED Talks lined up for me to listen to . . . 🙂

    • Marie Brennan

      Having listened to it now — interesting points, a lot of which sound to me like common sense (at least within the realms they’re intended to apply to). I can say for a certainty that the autonomy etc. are a massive part of what I love about being a writer; my pay might suck, compared to other fields I could be in, but I’m a heck of a lot more motivated. And if somebody offered me twice as much money to write exactly what they tell me to write, I’d probably say no, unless I really needed the money.

  4. wshaffer

    Actually, even over in business-land, financial incentives can be surprisingly tricky. Most merit raise or merit bonus based schemes aren’t terribly powerful as employee motivators – the rewards come too infrequently, and aren’t closely enough tied to specific behaviors. Plus, people get acclimated to a particular level of pay raise or bonus, and start to expect it as an entitlement.

    But all of that mostly serves to reinforce the point that any reward scheme has to be designed very carefully, to make sure that it really does reward the behaviors you want to reinforce.

    • Marie Brennan

      Yes, the immediacy of reward is a hugely important factor. The article says that one of the factors shared by the more successful school programs is immediate or weekly payouts, rather than something done at the end of a semester.

      I can imagine, in a certain type of business, setting it up so that you immediately pay out to the person who proposes an interesting and plausible solution to X problem during your weekly meeting: even if their solution ultimately doesn’t work out, you encourage creative thinking and the willingness to speak up. Etc. Figure out exactly what it is you want to encourage, then find a way to measure it, then calibrate a reward.

      • pentane

        Non-monetary rewards work better for immediacy, assuming any kind of buresucracy at your place of work.

        Don’t even get me started on the problems I’ve had with getting money to my team quickly.

        • Marie Brennan

          If you had a regular thing of “every week this manager writes a $50 check to one person on their team,” or something to that effect, I imagine the bureaucracy would adapt to that. If it were an irregular event, then, yes, it could become a very annoying mess.

          • pentane

            It would adapt to that, but it could also turn easily into a contest to do the best of your group for the week… which could easily turn into backstabbing.

            Of course, the problem with gaming any incentive is that worst cases are easy, best cases are easy, but in the end a lot relies of the trust of the team in local management and the skill of the local management in making things happen and reality is never as simple as the scenarios you construct.

  5. pentane

    Given the level of esoterica that’s associated with any job, I’d prefer if schools at least got right the idea of showing up on time and being willing to work for the assigned duration.

    I have people of any classification you wish to classify people into working for me and all of them are successful in their own way, and more importantly to me, they are successful as a team making me look good.

    • Marie Brennan

      I’m actually kind of intrigued by the way that, at least in some professions, we’re increasingly moving away from the 9-5 model: it doesn’t particularly matter what hours you’re in the office, so long as you work for long enough or (in the case of the ROWE approach mentioned near the end of the video) get your tasks done. Even if you don’t go so far as to make meetings completely optional — which also intrigues me, mostly because I think the “management culture” of business has inflated meetings beyond their necessary importance — you can still sometimes incorporate a surprising degree of flexibility.

      It doesn’t work in all cases, but in the cases where it can work, I think it may become more and more common.

      • pentane

        I think the two biggest factors are generational (although I hate generational comparisons) and trust.

        Trust is hard, because the only way you can establish it is by demonstrating the ability to toe the corporate line, and the idea of toeing the line to get freedom is to me a little ass backwards.

        Of course, most of reality works like that, so there we are.

        As for management culture… I could go on and on endlessly, but it probably would be very boring.

        I’ll just say that although the idea of breaking down heirarchies in, in principle, a good one, in practice many people need and want leadership for lots of different reasons. For a small enough organization… argh, I’m starting, sorry.

        • Marie Brennan

          There’s also trust in the other direction: I can say with a fair degree of certainty that my generation sees it as something their company has to earn from them. Given job turnover nowadays, there’s pretty much zero assumption that you’ll be at a place even as long as ten years (let alone fifty), so the notion of being a good little drone on the principle that your patience and obedience will be rewarded in time . . . yeah, no. Odds are you’ll be a good little drone and then get laid off with no warning, or screwed over in such fashion that you go looking for a different job of your own volition.

          And I’m not advocating a no-hierarchy situation, or even a reduced-hierarchy one; it’s more the bureaucracy that the hierarchy can breed, where people waste half or more of their working day sitting in meetings that don’t accomplish much and writing reports that pretty much just create stacks of paper. I think these things have often taken on importance far beyond what they merit. (Then again, I say that as a complete outsider: I have never yet worked in a job where I had to go to a meeting or write a report. This is based on what friends and family say.)

          • pentane

            The reason I don’t really like using generational comparisons is because a lot of them tend to be more age related. That is GenX (I’m on the older end of that generations, not sure where you put yourself) was known for being slackers and rebelling against McJobs, but in ’08 when I was going through generational training, we did views of different generations and I found in the last 20 years we became hard working, solid citizens. In the same way, GenX right out of college felt the same way about earning trust (probably a bit more strongly after the re-engineering frenzy of the 80s and the recession of the early 90s), but now that we have kids and mortgages and the like we’re probably a bit less idealistic.

            As for bureaucracy… it’s the most efficient way I can think of to run large organizations, so it’s pretty much tied to hierarchy. Not that it’s always done well, but there we are. I also agree that bureaucracy seems like a giant waste of time, but I’ve done things as a manager that I thought were inane when I was on the other side of the desk, but when I had to deal with the situation, the stupid way was the best way.

          • Marie Brennan

            It’s not that I think bureaucracy seems like a giant waste of time; I think it can breed wastes of time. Not always, but it’s a fault the system has to be policed for — and I’ve read some pretty trenchant critiques of how “management consultants” have built an entire industry out of advising people to add bureaucratic complications that don’t necessarily do much good.

          • pentane

            Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

            If you need to police the system, it’s already too late.

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