Creativity Killers 2: What Do We Do About Rewards?

Last Thursday I introduced the variables designated as “creativity killers” because they have been found to inhibit intrinsic motivation: evaluation, surveillance, reward, competition, and lack of choice. I know, the list is depressing. Procedures that are so familiar and common in classroom life can, vampire-like, suck the creative lifeblood from our classrooms. To add to the dilemma, intrinsic motivation is not just essential to creativity, it is essential to learning as well. As Stiggins has so eloquently pointed out, every day in our classrooms:

…students are deciding whether success is within or beyond reach, whether the learning is worth the required effort, and so whether to try or not. The critical emotions underpinning the decision-making of failure, uncertainty, and unwillingness to take risks — all are triggered by students’ perceptions of their own capabilities as reflected in assessment results….

The driving forces must be confidence, optimism, and persistence— for all, not just for some. All students must come to believe that they can succeed at learning if they try. They must have continuous access to evidence of what they believe to be credible academic success, however small.

There is nothing that impacts students beliefs about their capacity (either to learn, or to innovate) like the nature and implementation of our assessments. If we are to have assessments FOR creativity—or assessments FOR learning—we must address the dilemmas posed by the creativity killers.

Last week I talked a bit about evaluation and the associated surveillance. Today I’d like to look a bit at a most potent classroom variable: reward. Dorothy like, imagine the refrain: Stickers and smileys and pizza, oh my.

Students like rewards and frequently work hard to receive them. Elementary school teachers have kept sticker companies in business for many years, and secondary school students frequently have been enticed with class parties, honor rolls, and a variety of special privileges. Unfortunately, research tells us that rewards, when promised before a creative effort, can diminish both the motivation to continue similar activities later and the creativity of the activity itself. This can be called contracted-for reward—a reward that becomes the purpose of the activity.

There is a place for rewards in school. There is some evidence that individuals pursuing simple, straightforward tasks or practicing tasks already learned perform better and faster for promised rewards. (Wouldn’t you approach house cleaning with more enthusiasm if there were a reward at the end?) But for complex tasks involving problem solving or creativity, rewards often can be counterproductive. To reward students is to imply that the tasks are dull, to suggest that without a payoff, there is no reason students would want to think, experiment, or explore.

But what about those times when you really want to use a reward, or when rewards are part of something of value, like a science fair or invention convention? Don’t despair, there is a solution! Studies have shown that just as we can use inoculations to protect children from disease, we can apply immunizing strategies to minimize the negative effects of reward. Students simply need to be taught about the intrinsic rewards they can anticipate. In the research, students viewed videos like these, in which young people talked about the satisfaction they got from working hard and sharing their knowledge (Amabile, 1996). After viewing those videos, students who were offered rewards no longer demonstrated reduced creativity. In fact, students who had seen the videotape were more creative in their products when promised a reward. In this circumstance, intrinsic and extrinsic motivations seemed to work together. If we have similar conversations with students, emphasizing the interesting aspects of a task and minimizing the importance of extrinsic motivators, we may have similar results. Repeated references to tests, grades, prizes, or other external rewards, particularly with students engaged in creative tasks, are likely to have the opposite effect.

I’m sometimes awed by the impact of student-teacher interactions that seem so ordinary. In this case, just the way you describe a task and its importance can make the difference between students who are intrinsically motivated and creative and those who are reward-dependent. Let the immunizations begin!

Amabile, T. M. (1996). Creativity in context: Update to the social psychology of creativity. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Stiggins, R. (2005). From formative assessment to assessment FOR learning: A path to success in standards-based schools. Phi Delta Kappan, 87, 4, 324-328.

2 thoughts on “Creativity Killers 2: What Do We Do About Rewards?

  1. Pingback: Creativity Killers 3: Competition and the Progress Principle « creativiteach

  2. Pingback: When is “Wonderful!” Not So Wonderful? | creativiteach

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