Rewards don't work
Carrot-and-stick approach may work for mechanical tasks, but intrinsic motivation nurtures creative thinking among far more effectively. -The Star/ANN
ARE we actually achieving what we think we want by having an education system structured the way it is now, with its reward and punishment, or carrot-and-stick approach?
Research and science say no, but governments, social scientists and educationists have, for the last century, made the opposite choice. The current education system is stifling and eroding the one talent and skill that young people of the 21st century need most of all - the power of creative thinking.
Different types of exposure and experiences change the actual structure of brain development. You could say - with a very high degree of certainty - that children who grew up in the digital age have brains that are literally different from the rest of the human race.
This will also cause different ways of thinking, and will have different demands for mental stimulation and sustenance. Most importantly, these brains will learn differently.
Our children and students represent the first real generation who grew up nurtured by technology - surrounded by mobile phones, e-mail, Facebook, intelligent systems and digitised information - and their brains and minds have been programmed accordingly.
To expect them to be comfortable with an education system that represents the remnants of the Industrial Age is not only crazy, but downright foolish!
The Candle Problem
There is puzzle created in 1945 by a psychologist named Karl Duncker called the Candle Problem. Here's how it works.
Suppose I bring you into a room. I give you a candle, some thumbtacks in a box and some matches, and I tell you, "Your job is to attach the candle to the wall above that table, light the candle and ensure the wax does not drip onto the table. You cannot move the table."
How would you proceed?
Now, many people begin trying to thumbtack the candle to the wall, which does not work, of course.
Some people have the perfectly logical idea of lighting the match, melting the side of the candle and trying to stick it to the wall. This also does not work.
Eventually, most people figure out the solution: to place the candle on top of the box, using it as a platform and tray, ensuring the wax does not drip onto the table.
The key is to overcome what's called Functional Fixedness - to see the box as something other than just a container for the thumbtacks.
A scientist named Sam Glucksberg, who is now at Princeton University in the United States (US), conducted a similar experiment. This one shows the power of incentives.
He gathered his participants and said, "I'm going to time you. How quickly can you solve this candle problem?"
To one group, he said: "I'm going to time you to establish norms, averages for how long it typically takes someone to solve this sort of problem."
To the second group, he offered rewards: "If you're in the top 25% of the fastest times, you get a hundred dollars. If you're the fastest of everyone we're testing here today, you get two hundred dollars."
Question: How much faster did this group solve the problem?
Answer: They didn't. The second group took, on average, three and a half minutes longer!
Now this appears to make no sense, right? If you want people to perform better, you reward them with bonuses, commissions - sweet carrots. But that's not happening here.
You would think that incentives are designed to sharpen thinking and accelerate creativity, but it does just the opposite. It dulls thinking and blocks creativity.
This experiment has been replicated over and over again, for nearly 40 years. The rule that is supposed to be "if you do this, then you get that" only works in some circumstances. This is one of the most robust findings in social science. It is also one of the most ignored.
Many scientists have looked at the science of human motivation, particularly the dynamics of extrinsic motivators and intrinsic motivators.
Our education operating system is built entirely around these extrinsic motivators - around carrots and sticks, exam results, promotions and scholarships. That's actually fine for many 20th century tasks. But for 21st century tasks, that industrial age approach does not work - and often does more harm than good - as it psychologically increases dependence on outside motivators and negates free will, creativity and thinking skills.
Glucksberg did another experiment similar to the first, where he presented the problem in a slightly different way. This time the thumbtacks were lying on the table, outside the box. The same rules apply: attach the candle to the wall so that the wax doesn't drip onto the table. Again, to the first group, he said that he was timing for normal population performance. To the second group, he offered "carrots".
This time, the carrot group performed far better than the first.
Rewards work really well for those sorts of tasks, where there is a simple set of rules and a clear destination to go to.
Rewards, by their very nature, narrow our focus, concentrate the mind. For tasks like this, with a narrow focus - where you just see the goal and zoom straight ahead to it - they work really well.
But for the real Candle Problem, the solution is not obvious. The solution lies in the fringes of your mind. You need to be looking outside the box.
Everybody deals with their own version of the Candle Problem. For Candle Problems of any kind, in any field, those "if-then" rewards - the things around which we've built our education system - do not work. To make matters even more complicated, in the real world, we need to listen and collaborate with other people, which increases levels of complexity.
A new approach
There is a mismatch between what science knows, and what governments and education systems do. If we really want high performance on the definitional tasks of the 21st century, the solution is not to entice people with a sweeter carrot, or threaten them with a sharper stick. We need a whole new approach.
Scientists who've been studying motivation have given us this new approach, built much more around intrinsic motivation or around the desire to do things because they matter, because they're interesting and because they are part of something important.
That proposed new operating system for our education system orbits three elements: autonomy, mastery and purpose.
Education systems are not trees. They are computers. Somebody invented them. It doesn't mean they are going to work forever.
Traditional education systems are great if you want compliance and people who do not know how to think. If you want engagement, and autonomy, mastery and purpose, self-direction works better.
This has been seen to work at Google, which implements something called 20 Percent Time, where engineers can spend 20% of their time working on anything they want.
The employees have autonomy over their time, task, team, and technique. At Google, about half of the new products in a typical year are birthed during that 20 Percent Time.
Another system is the Results Only Work Environment - the ROWE. It was created by two American consultants and is in place at about a dozen companies around North America. In a ROWE people don't have schedules; they show up when they want.
They don't have to be in the office at a certain time, or any time - they just have to get their work done. How they do it, when, or where, is totally up to them.
Almost across the board, these companies have seen increased productivity, worker engagement and worker satisfaction, and decreased staff turnover.
Now some of you might look at this and say, "Hmm, that sounds nice. But it's Utopian."
There is proof.
In the mid-1990s, Microsoft started an encyclopedia called Encarta. They had deployed all the right incentives. Professionals were paid to write and edit thousands of articles. Well-compensated managers oversaw the whole thing to make sure it came in on budget and on time.
A few years later, another encyclopedia got started, with a different, "do it for fun" model. No one was paid a single cent. They did it because they enjoyed doing it.
Now, if you had, just 10 years ago, asked anyone who would win out between these two different models for creating an encyclopedia, you would not find anyone who would have predicted the Wikipedia model.
This is the titanic battle between these two approaches. There is intrinsic (bottom-up) versus extrinsic (top-down) motivators. There is autonomy, mastery and purpose versus carrots-and-sticks.
Who wins? Intrinsic motivation, autonomy, mastery and purpose - every single time.
The secret to high performance isn't rewards and punishments, but that unseen intrinsic drive - the drive to do things for their own sake and the drive to do things because they matter.
If we can get past this dangerous ideology of carrots-and-sticks, we can radically transform and strengthen our education systems.
* Parts of this article are adapted from Daniel Pink's "Surprising Science of Motivation".
Dr Theva is a senior lecturer at the School of Educational Studies, Universiti Sains Malaysia. Through this fortnightly column and the ENGAGE (Education for Sustainable Global Futures) programme at USM, he and his colleagues hope to help transform the landscapes of Malaysian schooling and higher education systems. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
-The Star/Asia News Network
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