Friday, December 10, 2010

The science of motivation: implications for learning

In this very interesting video, Daniel Pink presents a surprising fact about the effect of incentives on human behaviour.

To put it briefly, Dan Pink presents several experiments conducted by American universities and one by the London School of Economics, all of which show the same thing: If you're asking people to perform a task that involves creative thinking, monetary rewards make them perform worse than they would otherwise do! His interpretation of this surprising result is that incentives focus the mind in such a way as to hinder the required creativity.

On the other hand, when a group is offered a monetary reward to perform a mechanical task, its members perform better than those belonging to a control group.

Implications for students
What does that have to do with education, I hear you ask. Well, it seems to me that the grades we give our students are the currency of the classroom. When we assess frequently and grade all our assessments, we focus our students' minds on the process of taking tests. Rather than encouraging them to take risks, learn and solve difficult problems, we encourage them to learn facts and procedures. "Is this going to be on the test?" becomes their most commonly asked question. We enter into a vicious circle where they stop valuing anything that is not "going to be on the test" and we start testing even more because "they won't value anything that is not on the test".

Implications for teachers
There has been much talk in the last few years about "performance bonuses" for teachers. Such bonuses may well motivate us to drill the students on taking the national benchmark tests. Our teaching becomes very focused on one set of outcomes. I have heard of American primary schools that have stopped teaching anything but Maths and English. History, Geography, Science, LOTE and the Arts are not benchmarked. Students' performances on those subjects are not tied to a school's funding.
In conclusion, do we think the tasks of teaching and learning are of the creative variety or do we conceive of them as mechanical tasks? Currently, there are many -external- incentives for us to make them belong to the latter type.