I don’t need your badges

Time for a public confession.

One of my favorite parts of my hard copy of the Sunday New York Times each week is the Business section. Ordinarily this has nothing to do with my job. It’s just a brief trip into a fantasy world in which I earn real money; a chance to bump elbows with people who do.

But this week there were three articles about badges.

Exhibit A: Natasha Singer’s “Slipstream” column. This covers the online trend of virtual rewards, referred to as gamification and reminds us that there may be danger in allowing ourselves to be manipulated. There is discussion of the Twitter badge on Samsung’s site, a company called Badgeville that designs game-based sites, and the difference between virtual rewards (badges) and real ones (free airplane trips).

Exhibit B: Randall Stross’s “Digital Domain” column. This covers a medical social networking site that allows patients to ask question and doctors to post and discuss answers to those questions. There are the Paramedic Award, the Good Samaritan Award, the Louis Pasteur Award and many others.

Exhibit C: A review by Nancy Koehn of Strings Attached by Ruth Grant. From the  review:

[Grant] says that paying children to elicit certain behavior may have destructive consequences in developing character, potentially nurturing self-interest at the expense of kinder motives. “Where students work in an environment that values only extrinsic rewards for learning,” she writes, “cheating goes up.”

Right. When the rewards are extrinsic (can you say “badges” or “test scores”?), those who buy in become motivated for the reward.

I don’t work for badges. Or grades. Or external evaluations of any kind, really. Of course this meant a lot of B’s and C’s in high school and much teacher and parental hand-wringing about “underachievement”. And it meant quitting the Boy Scouts after my first year because I was uninterested in earning literal badges.

Now I’m supposed to be interested in your virtual badges?


So teachers, let’s be careful about this stuff. Best case scenario in the long term seems to be annoying kids with this stuff. Worst case scenario reduces their interest in what we’re trying to motivate them to do.


8 responses to “I don’t need your badges

  1. I was just reading “Drive, the surprising truth about what motivates us” by Daniel Pink, and this book explains very well that the carrot & stick approach to motivation, aka the badges, works really well for tasks requiring only doing. Rewards activate a focus on the goal, at the exclusion of all others. As soon as you want creativity or free thinking, rewards actually stifle the results. This is, according to Pink, one of the most stable results in social psychology. And also one of the most disregarded.
    The short of it: intrinsically motivated behaviour is mostly killed off by offering external rewards. (once the most basic costs of living are covered, of course)
    I am struggling to figure out how I can make this work for me as a teacher, but it is definitely something to be aware of.

  2. This post really helps me round out some thinking in a philosophy of education course. How about a bit deeper historical perspective on the issue of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation? You probably remember reading that Plato describes a slave as one who doesn’t express his/her own ideas through his/her actions. Then a few short years down the road Dewey’s response to Plato’s remarks are that method, purpose and understanding should reside in the individual if his/her activity is to have any meaning to the individual.
    So I’m thinking I’m making a step in the right direction if I create an environment where students know what, how and why they are doing what they do…I’m just struggling to let go of the OREO party after linear systems analysis of Double vs. Single Stuff OREOS! I am realizing now its important I reflect on what rewards enslave me in addition to those extrinsic rewards that rob my students of their own quality thinking, seeing as they are quite intertwined in my world.

  3. We should be careful about making blanket statements about the effects of extrinsic rewards on motivation. While the vast majority of evidence does suggest that extrinsic rewards decrease intrinsic motivation on tasks, a key caveat to these findings that many often overlook or ignore is that they decrease intrinsic motivation on tasks that are intrinsically motivating to begin with, and that they have an insignificant or even positive effect on motivation for tasks that are dull or boring. (Just one source: http://bit.ly/AodSnT) This caveat isn’t noted just by defenders of the use of extrinsic rewards, but also by researchers who do generally support the idea that rewards can decrease intrinsic motivation (again, on interesting tasks).

  4. Pingback: From 4-year old logic to 7-year old wisdom | Overthinking my teaching

  5. Great post. Just missing one thing. A Blazing Saddles reference: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TFwprS_L6tg

  6. Taylor, I went back and forth on whether to title the post “I don’t need no stinkin’ badges!” Mainly I didn’t because (true confessions again) I have not actually seen the movie. I only know the reference from the cultural ether.

    I shall add it to my Netflix queue so I can honestly exploit further opportunities.

  7. Pingback: More on badges | Overthinking my teaching

  8. Pingback: What do video games have to do with cardinal numbers? I’m gonna find out! | Overthinking my teaching

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