Should Learning Be Its Own Reward?

The obvious answer to the question above is, “Of course!” But, I think it’s the wrong question. I like this question better:  “Is learning its own reward?” I think the answer is “sometimes.” Usually, when I hear the question, I walk quickly away because I know the conversation is about to become heated as lines are drawn and sides are taken on the issue of giving rewards or not giving rewards to piano students. I tend to believe that the truth almost never lies on the extreme sides of any issue, but somewhere in the middle.

We piano teachers have to compete with so many things that prevent our students from practicing – sports practices that happen every day of the week with travel tournaments on the weekends, heavier than ever homework loads, the stress of high-stakes standardized testing, etc. Sometimes the issue is not whether the student is motivated to practice piano, but whether he is motivated to get the homework done in the car, or at daycare, or at brother’s soccer game so that there will be a few minutes for piano practice between supper and bed. Many of us resort to incentive programs, although all of us hope that our students will be motivated to practice for the love of it, not for a reward. Yesterday, I discovered an article that discusses the issue of extrinsic motivation vs. intrinsic motivation in the most rational manner I’ve seen. Ask the Cognitive Scientist:  Should Learning Be Its Own Reward?  The author addresses the pros and cons of using rewards very fairly, citing relevant research that shows when it is detrimental and when it can be helpful and avoids the kind of black and white approach that can cause arguments. It’s an easy-to-read article, and I highly recommend it.

If you’ve got a little more time, the Carnegie Foundation has just published (in July 2015) a 48-page document called Motivation Matters:  How New Research Can Help Teachers Boost Student Engagement.

As you know if you’ve read here before, I do use incentive programs in my studio. My Findin’ Buried Treasure program is a token economy system, a type of motivator used by many classroom teachers. The student receives tokens of some kind (either physical or in the form of points) that can be exchanged for something the student wants. The advantages of such a system include that it is based on positive reinforcement, the reinforcement is immediate, and it mirrors real-life experiences. Incidentally, most gamification systems such as Piano Maestro are also forms of token economy. Students earn points. Accumulating a certain number allows him to “unlock” (buy) the next level and gain more points and a higher ranking (status). If a teacher uses any token system manipulatively, it can be negative – just as manipulative praise is negative. Based on the reading I’ve been doing, I believe that token systems are effective when:

1- The teacher is consistent – not promising to give a token and then forgetting. This destroys trust.
2- The system represents a contract between the student and the teacher that is clearly defined. The student should be able to predict exactly how the system will work.
3- The items that can be purchased with tokens are desirable.
4- The tokens are given immediately.
5- Participation in the system is an option, not a requirement, and there is no penalty for not participating. This means that the teacher is not using rewards as a bribe in any way.
6- The token or the purchased item is not the primary goal but a symbolic way of celebrating the achievement of a goal or skill. Celebrating a student’s achievement of goals is a way to boost their sense of self-efficacy which gives them courage to try new things.

Last year, I made up an incentive program that was really cute, but didn’t work very well in my studio – nowhere near as well as Findin’ Buried Treasure. So, I decided to scrap it instead of selling it. If you have young students, you should check out Jennifer Foxx’s really intriguing gamified program! My students are aging out of that one or I’d jump on it! I do have some plans for this year, and they will focus mainly on student’s independently setting and tracking their goals. My studio is mostly made of students 11 and older, and I think they can do this. I’m trying to incorporate the principles in the articles above. I’ll be back to describe it once I’ve got it all worked out. In the meantime, I hope you’ll check out those linked articles above.