To Motivate Students, Make Them Give Away Their Rewards

A few months ago I wrote a piece for the Washington Post. The next day, my friend Lew emailed me with a link to an article about motivation through rewarding others that appeared on the page opposite my piece.

"The juxtaposition," Lew wrote, "was likely coincidental, yet apt."

The article about motivation discussed a growing body of research showing that rewarding others leads to greater satisfaction than rewarding ourselves.

This conclusion doesn't seem intuitive: If I were to ask you if you would prefer to spend your year-end bonus on yourself or spend it on your coworkers, you would likely choose the former.

Pret-a-Manger, a U.K. food chain that is expanding in America, believes the opposite to be true.

Stephanie Clifford, reporting for The New York Times, described how the incentive system works at Pret:

"When employees are promoted or pass training milestones, they receive at least £50 in vouchers, a payment that Pret calls a 'shooting star,' but instead of keeping the bonus, the employees must give the money to colleagues, people who have helped them along the way."

To install Pret's incentive system in the academy would be to blow it up.

Recently direct motivation systems have been gaining traction. ClassDojo won NBC's "Education Nation" in September. I know a few people trying to build similar motivational iPhone applications for children.

In all cases I know of, the rewards are direct. With ClassDojo, you get points when you turn in your homework or answer a question correctly. With the motivational iPhone applications, children receive a prize (or hard cash) in exchange for doing the dishes or cleaning their room.

What if when students got gold stars on ClassDojo they didn't keep them, but rather gave them out to other students who helped them along the way? No longer would students be motivated solely to perform the best—they would be motivated to help their classmates.

This motivational system is the beginning of community-directed learning.

Dale Stephens was homeschooled and then unschooled. Now he leads Perigee/Penguin will publish his first book about hacking your education in early 2013.

[Editor's note: Dale Stephens is one of the inaugural Thiel Fellows who stopped going to college in exchange for a place in an innovative mentoring program. Read more from Dale—and about PayPal founder Peter Thiel's education experiment—here.]

[Image: Flickr user Katherine Anderson]

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  • Russ Seagle

    Better yet, why not motivate students to help their classmates by giving them part of their good grades? An "A" student could give part of their grade to a "C" student, and they could both have a "B" in the course. Or a "B" student could help a "D" student, and both could take a "C" in the course. This could be applied to the test or homework level, as well. This would provide more "help" than a voucher. I wonder how many students would go for this? I wonder how many parents would be inclined to have their children accept a lower grade so someone else could have a better one?

  • john

    Our school clients that use uBoost as a recognition system find that 80% of students use a portion of their awarded points to redeem for charitable donations and 90% will gift donations, merchandise, gift cards or virtual assets to their classmates.

  • Nhi

    What a great not only teaches self awareness but selfless-awareness.  I work with companies to institute such programs and have found them to be extremely rewarding and successful!

  • Sam Chaudhary

    Dale - hey mate :) great article, and really interesting Pret example. This is definitely something we're moving towards, and in fact we've already seen teachers use ClassDojo to give recognition for group efforts rather than just direct individual rewards. I really like the idea of going further, and allowing students to recognize others who have helped them; this will build a great culture, and a community focused on effective learning habits. We should incorporate this functionality to ClassDojo - thanks for the thoughts!
    Look forward to catching up soon.CheersSam