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Dear ClassDojo, it's Complicated


Just after posting this blog, I discovered Vivo Miles:

From the site "It’s the 21st century right? So, when you do something worthy of a reward at school, you want something a little more interesting than a sticker or a stamp in your planner from your teacher, yeah?"

That is OFFICIALLY more DEPRESSING than the "Day Made of Glass #2" video showing futuristic classrooms with ROWS OF DESKS FACING THE FRONT.

Anyway, on with this post:

My friend and colleague Cameron Paterson has blogged about ClassDojo and repeated the well known criticism that external rewards kill intrinsic motivation.

If you're not up to speed on ClassDojo, it sets up a very shiny list of students and allows you to award and subtract points, even via your mobile phone, with compelling sound effects. With the class list up on the big projector screen you've got a big bag of peanuts for your monkeys.

Which is, of course, Paterson's criticism. And yes he is dead right about the dynamic. It's not that it's new, either, schooling is mostly composed of similar systems that we may not notice simply because we notice new things more than the familiar.

The graphics and message of ClassDojo, at face value, has no trace of the irony I propose below, and at face value suggests a veritable caricature of behaviourism. 

Nevertheless I feel a strong urge to try to shift the discourse on ClassDojo, and more broadly on reward-mechanics to a different level. There is a distinction that screams relevance at me.

I commented on Cameron's post, and will reproduce the comment here below:

I certainly have a reaction against the smug teacher graphic on the classdojo site because it says to me “Look, I’m in control!”.

Yet I too have used it in my Yr 8 French class, mostly to see how the students relate to it, and different ways it can be framed. Gathering field data, I guess.

But the main thing I want to throw into the mix here, is that reality is more complex than “an extrinsic reward kills intrinsic motivation”.

There is indeed what we might call a ‘valley’ where, when you start offering an extrinsic reward, the intrinsic motivation drops. I don’t dispute this dynamic.

However there is a far side to that valley, and it occurs when the individual has a mental model that is able to contextualise the reward mechanism from a higher, savvy, perspective. When they can deconstruct it. I’m saying that there is a sort of literacy to it.

I’m particularly aware of this due to my extreme familiarity with computer games.

You reckon we play monopoly to earn fake cash and beat the other guy? We play monopoly to socialise. The game-dynamic of earning cash is contextualised within what is clearly a constructed, artificial system.

So, we sit above the system, not underneath it. The motivation backfire occurs when the individual has a perspective within the system, mistaking the system for reality. If they look on the system from above, from without, then they can engage with it for their own purposes. This is where the language of gaming is perfect for making sense of this dynamic.

In discussing a study where this effect was shown, Amabile and Hennessy conclude, “It would seem that as a result of their training, these children had learned to treat reward not as an element that detracts from intrinsic interest but as something that can add to overall motivation. They had learned to overcome the deleterious effects of reward – so much that their levels of intrinsic motivation (and therefore levels of creativity) seem to have increased.”

Now, would anyone dispute that our young people are going to be navigating (ARE ALREADY navigating) a world absolutely chock-block full of extrinsic reward systems designed to hack their brains, distort their authentic drives, and make them obey a third party agenda (from work to death for a company through to buy this brand of chocolate)?

The solution is NOT to ban such mechanisms in schools but to contextualise. We need a game-mechanics literacy. Students should be experiencing these systems and taught to deconstruct them, as a scaffolded experience to ‘wise them up’.

In other news, savvy computer gamer kids might be getting just this experience, yet another example of the computer game industry doing a better job of schooling our kids than school does.

But that’s a shame. Being purist about reward-mechanics does nothing to help students deconstruct a world full of them.

I’ve written at length about these issues over at my happysteve blog.

I am not, for one moment, suggesting that teachers are using Classdojo in the way I am describing – simply that the discourse around it could move to a far more constructive space if it transcended its current terms of reference. 

The reference for the study I referred to is:
Amabile, T. M., Hennessey, B.A., & Grossman, B.S. (1986) Social influences on creativity: The effects of contracted-for reward.
in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 14-23.