Rewards and Engagement

The ever-present struggle in teaching has been the idea of rewards – more specifically the “If you do this, you’ll get that” mentality.  Rewards have been cast in every light from virtuous to villainous.  Is there a happy-medium? Are rewards themselves ‘bad’ or is it what we’re rewarding that’s ‘bad’.  What we know to be real is that motivation and engagement, good or bad, is effected by rewards.

Brought to my attention through 2 of my classmates (I will link to their blogs at the end of this post) was a TED talk from Dan Pink.  Here is his TED video from TedGlobal 2009.

To summarize, Pink’s position is that by offering rewards we stifle creativity and problem solving. Incentives play a strong role in simple procedural tasks, but when it comes to high-level thinking and problem solving, rewards hinder progress and limit views and pathways to solutions.   He speaks of autonomy, mastery, and purpose as being strong motivators – true engagement is a result of self-direction.  He presents the work model of ROWE (Results Only Work Environment) – people are without schedules.  Work (objectives) has to be completed but the how, when, and where is up to the employee.  Are we as teachers willing to give students the same affordances?  I believe there is no black and white answer to this.  Teachers will know which of their students this model works best for and which it may not.  There are several brain development issues at play in young people (especially middle years) and they may not have the self-discipline for complete autonomy.  Careful guiding and crafting may be needed.

I did some investigation and found another TED talk from Tom Chatfield.  His TED Talk on “7 Ways Games Reward the Brain” offered some interesting evidence that support rewards.  Here’s the video below.

Chatfield has this comment on rewards.  “The very intense emotional rewards that playing games offers to people both individually and collectively……..When people play games, they have the “wanting” and “liking” processes.”

Games measure what you do (colleting data points) and create a reward schedule. The reward schedule keeps players engaged and coming back over and over again.  Game software uses probability and data to maintain engagement.

Chatfield’s idea of measuring progress through ‘status bars’  and a ‘reward schedule’ is  substantiated by Driscoll who says “Data can be kept on a leaner’s path through the program – what information has been visited and how much time the learner has interacted with that information.  Such data can also show when learners have achieved certain benchmarks.”.  What this means is that students are motivated by their own progressSuccess begets success.  If students  track meaningful progress, and see that they are ‘getting somewhere’ they stay on the path and continue.

Both Dan Pink and Tom Chatfield have this common thread: the strongest learning (productivity) comes through peer-to-peer interactions.  Strong intrinsic motivation comes about when students see what other students are doing.  Who amongst us wants to be the one who is ‘behind’ or ‘left out’?  We have an intrinsic desire to “keep up” and “hold our own”.

So back to rewards.  On the one hand you have Pink saying that rewards (for the most part) stifle creativity and reduce engagement.  Then you have Chatfield saying that there are strong ties to rewards from game play that can encourage productivity/creativity/engagement.  Who is correct?

When you sit back and synthesize both ideas you realize they both are!  One thing we need to appreciate about Chatfield’s idea of rewards is that it is not the outcome that is to be rewarded but the effort – that people should be credited for what they try to do.  It must also be made clear that the rewards he’s talking about are intrinsic rewards – level-up, finish the game, kill the monster, increase status bars –  and it is those intrinsic motivators that can be translated into teaching & learning.



Paul Webster’s blog (cpbw)

Barclay Batiuk’s blog

Tom Chatfield

Dan Pink


3 thoughts on “Rewards and Engagement

  1. Yes, Jeff. I think the key here is awareness of efficacy and value. We all want to know how we’re doing, right? We want to have an indication that we’re learning, growing, changing. And it’s particularly powerful for the things we really value, and those things can change over time. Whether it’s achieving a badge status in a game or picking up a cool blues riff on guitar, it feels good when we know we got it. The trick, as you point out, is to transfer as many of those judgments about efficacy over to the learner, where the value already resides. If we can help learners develop a picture of their own markers for success — and hopefully ones they created for themselves — then it is too much fun to watch kids accelerate.

    So this is one of the posts you had on the back burner? Glad you moved it forward! 🙂

  2. Jeff, I liked your take on Pink’s TED talk.

    There are a few things in your post I want to comment on. Your questions about affordances offered to students is valid. How do teachers allow learners to set out and attempt something with adequate support (or that is appropriate according to the zone of proximal development) and ensure that there is an adequate time-on-task and that “learning is occurring”? In my instructional experience in inquiry-based (or authentic learning according to @schwier) it’s the continuous feedback and the student/teacher conferences stages where we can track and monitor student progress, successes, and difficulties.

    I have returned to deep thinking about the realities between formal and informal learning. From @Barclay_1’s post ( and my short take on it (, what informal learning takes place during a worksheet driven direct instruction learning context? Is the informal learning richer and almost as valuable as the formal learning when students are working on real life problems? I am led to believe so after reading the figure that there is a 20% – 80% divide on formal and informal learning in an educational context. The important question for me is, what valid 21st century skills are being learned during the formal/informal learning?

    Finally it’s from this line of thinking that I wonder if your comment is always valid:
    “What this means is that students are motivated by their own progress.  Success begets success.  If students  track meaningful progress, and see that they are ‘getting somewhere’ they stay on the path and continue.”
    If the task is not relevant and lacks authenticity to real-life problems, will success/progress always motivate students? I am not so sure about this depending on the context…

  3. Jeff, I think this is a great reflection. We should definitely use some of this with our group in the fall. I believe it is something that many of our group are faced with when we talk about student engagment and self motivation etc. I really appreciate the links and the way you look at both sides and knowing when and what is appropriate for various students. Remind us to revisit this with the group.

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