Are rewards really effective in the classroom?
In this thought-provoking episode, we take a critical look at the use of rewards in education. We discuss the potential pitfalls and how rewards can lose their impact over time. Find out how to use reward systems wisely to support your students' growth and development and increase motivation.
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Show notes / transcription
Emma Shackleton 0:00
Now the length of the feedback loop is really important here. The shorter the loop, the more likely your brain is to connect the action with the reward. short feedback loops mean that the action is quickly followed up by the reward and therefore likely to link the action together with the reward. Longer feedback loops mean that we might receive a reward, but because time has passed since the action, we don't always link the action and the reward directly together.
Simon Currigan 0:30
Hi there, Simon Currigan here and welcome to this bite sized essentials episode of School Behaviour Secrets. In this mini essentials episode, I'm going to share one important bite sized piece of information or a helpful strategy with you from a previous interview episode that you can use to shape your day to day classroom practice. It just helps keep these important concepts top of mind when we're constantly being bombarded with new information. In this essentials episode, my co host Emma and I explore the surprising science of reward systems, how to use them, when to use them, and how long you can expect them to work for so you know exactly how to increase pupil motivation in your classroom. Today, we're going to look at how extrinsic rewards can have the opposite effect to the one we intend how they can demotivate or crush the intrinsic desire to do the right thing.
Emma Shackleton 2:08
And we're going to start by looking at something called feedback loops, which are integral to how rewards work. Human beings are more complicated than what we're about to describe. But we're going to use a simple model so that we can communicate the ideas behind the psychology. When we use rewards. We're using something called operant conditioning. And this was developed by BF Skinner from the 1940s onwards.
Simon Currigan 2:35
So very simply, the process goes like this. So we've got a rat in a box. And inside the box, there is a lever. And BF Skinner was interested to find out if the rat could learn that when it presses lever, a little reward drops out of a feeding tube to encourage the rat to press the lever again. And that did indeed happen. The rat learned to press the lever when it was hungry to get a reward. And what happens at the chemical level is when the rat presses a lever, and that little bit of food comes down the feeding tube in the rats brain, a chemical called dopamine is released. Now the job of dopamine is to say, Well, that was interesting, pay attention to what happened, you press the lever and you got a reward. And that forms the feedback loop. There is a trigger the rats in a box and it's feeling hungry. It sees the lever, it engages in a behavior, which is pressing the lever and a reward comes down, which gives the rat a hit of dopamine. And our brains are wired exactly the same way. When we engage in behaviours. If we get some form of reward, we get a hit of dopamine as well, that little chemical messenger that says that was interesting. Pay attention to it. Now what that dopamine will do is when we're in that situation next time, we've started to form a link between the behaviour and the reward, so it makes it more likely that we're going to use that behaviour again, we engage in that behaviour again.
Emma Shackleton 3:56
Now the length of the feedback loop is really important here. The shorter the loop, the more likely your brain is to connect the action with the reward. short feedback loops mean that the action is quickly followed up by the reward and therefore likely to link the action together with the reward. Longer feedback loops mean that we might receive a reward. But because time has passed since the action, we don't always link the action and the reward directly together. So for example, a child receiving a sticker at the end of the day for good sitting that they did in assembly this morning. might be too long a feedback loop for the child to associate the good sitting with getting the sticker. I'm sure we've all been in a situation where we've asked a child whether it's our own or a child in our class, what did you get that sticker for and actually they don't know or they can't remember. And that's usually indicative of a feedback loop which is too long. The reward has come too long after the action So the two are not now linked together in the child's brain.
Simon Currigan 5:03
So whether it's a rat or a human the feedback, the reward has to be within seconds, or certainly in humans a short number of minutes to have any real impact. If our rat presses the lever, and the reward drops down half a second later, it's easy for the rats to associate pressing the lever with getting the food if the rat presses the lever, and five hours later food is released, then the rat is going to find it much more difficult to associate a with b. So this effect wanes over time, and your brain doesn't link these two ideas in any meaningful way. And that means your child gets a sticker at the end of the day for sitting well in assembly, and they don't really link the two ideas, when not encouraging that behaviour in the future.
Emma Shackleton 5:45
These ideas do apply to humans. So in 1949, there was a documented experiment on a boy with profound disabilities, he could only lie on his back and not rollover, every time the boy moved his right arm, the researcher injected a warm sugar milk solution into the boy's mouth. Interestingly, within four sessions, the boy could lift his arm into a vertical position three times per minute, indicating that he wanted the reward and linking the lifting of the arm with the reward. So that motivated him to repeat that behaviour more and more frequently.
Simon Currigan 6:24
Now, we've been describing really quite simple behaviours at the moment, a rat in a cage, pressing a lever, getting a reward, a child sitting nicely in assembly getting a sticker. But this mechanism can lead to some really quite complex behaviours. As an example, rats that only press the lever when a light in the cage came on, or for pigeons to tap a lever when certain words appeared on a simple display, they had to learn which words gave them a reward and which words to avoid.
Emma Shackleton 6:53
So now we're going to think about how the effect changes over time, dopamine only fires up on unexpected rewards, it likes novelty. So remember, this is the chemical that says 'Pay attention'. And we stop paying attention to expected stuff. Expected stuff fades into the background and becomes a bit like wallpaper.
Simon Currigan 7:15
So whereas before we had a trigger, we've got a rat in our cage, and it's a bit hungry, we've got a behaviour, pressing the lever, followed by a hit of dopamine saying pay attention to that. What's interesting is over time, the dopamine fires before you engage in the behaviour, which will lead you to desire or crave the rewards. And this is what leads to habits. It's called a habit loop. I'm in a certain situation, maybe I'm not a smoker, but imagine that you're a smoker, and you enjoy smoking in social environments, so you're out with your friends outside, because smoking inside is illegal now, but you're out with your friends in a social situation, being in that situation gets dopamine to fire, which makes you crave the nicotine that you're used to having in that situation. So it creates habits and it creates a desire for something.
Emma Shackleton 8:02
So if you do a behaviour and the expected reward doesn't come, less dopamine is fired, meaning that over time you lose the motivation to engage in that behaviour, we lose interest in the behaviours because we no longer find them rewarding, we need a very high level of consistency to keep on encouraging the same behaviour.
Simon Currigan 8:25
So I engage in the behaviour, get a reward 100% of the time. I need that 100% consistency, to keep encouraging me to repeat the behaviour. But there's another problem, not just the power of the reward fading over time, but as a human being I become habituated or used to the reward, so it loses some of its impact and novelty. So now, not only do I need great consistency, I need greater and greater rewards to have the same kind of impact and influence on me, what was exciting at the start of the year for kids becomes very pedestrian after a while they might be very excited by a new reward scheme, they might be excited to get stickers and dojos. But you know, give it a month and those rewards become expected they get used to them, and they lose all of their impact.
And that's all we've got time for on this Essentials episode, where we've considered the science behind reward systems, the impact of reward systems on pupil motivation and how extrinsic rewards can actually have the opposite effect to the one that we intend. To find out two forms of extrinsic reward that do actually work and how you can make reward systems smart, I recommend you head back to the original episode. That's episode 23. I'll leave a direct link in the show notes. And I will say knowing about how to use reward systems effectively is just one part of classroom management. If you want to see how it fits alongside your routines, your environment and other factors we've got a Free Download called the classroom management score sheet that will help grab a free copy of the score sheet today by going to beaconschoolsupport.co.uk. UK. Clicking on the free resources option in the menu, you'll find it near the top of the page to download. It's completely free. And again, I'll put a direct link to that in the episode description as well. So grab it today. If you've enjoyed listening today, please remember to rate and review us It takes just 30 seconds. And when you do, it prompts the algorithm to recommend School Behaviour Secrets to other listeners. And that helps us grow the podcast and get this information out to other teachers, school leaders and parents. And while you've got that podcast app open, do remember to hit subscribe so you never miss another episode. Thanks for listening and I look forward to seeing you next time on School Behaviour Secrets
(This automated transcript may not be 100% accurate.)