I recently got the results for my latest masters courses and I’m doing pretty well. But I don’t really care. I’ve never been particularly motivated by grades. As long as they are high enough that I can keep studying whatever I want.
The results came as I started reading A bigger prize by Margaret Heffernan. It’s a deep dive into competition. Specifically, the way we have unquestioningly inserted competition into so many aspects of life even as we keep discovering the benefits (to creativity, health, equality etc.) of cooperation.
In one early chapter Heffernan describes an experiment into kids’ motivation at school. And it really stopped me short. Wondering how I had lucked into an intrinsic motivation to learn, rather than needing to be baited with gold stars.
In the original experiment, a bunch of nursery school children were divided into three groups and given the opportunity to draw. The first group was promised a reward: if they drew, they’d win a certificate. The second group was told nothing – but was surprised by a certificate when it had finished drawing. The third group just drew and received nothing for its labours. Two weeks later, the children were again confronted by paper and pens. Now the question was: which group would want to draw? The group that had initially been promised a reward was the least engaged: why should they draw when there was no certificate on offer?
Similar experiments have been conducted with different ages, tasks and rewards, in different industries and countries around the world, but the results don’t vary. Grades, stars, certificates, money, trophies: ‘virtually every type of expected tangible reward made contingent on task performance does, in fact, undermine intrinsic motivation.’
This quickly feeds into rumination on divergent thinking, the problems with exams, and the link between education and creativity. But I’d like to stop here for now.
I need to look more into these studies. They seem directionally in line with what we see in society. Most people seem to stop learning when they finish school or university. Outside of that a lot is probably motivated by specific goals - qualifying for a job etc. But is this because we have subconsciously trained people to require short term positive reinforcement in order to learn?
Even the HBR-esque calls for lifelong learning are couched in these terms. I rarely ever see advocates for learning because learning itself is good. Education is expensive, fair enough. But its precisely the non-rewards-based education that is the cheapest. Wikipedia is almost free, for example.
Heffernan’s solution is to overhaul the structure of schools to remove aspects like testing, ranking and their links to teacher pay. Eliminate some of the competition, as is the main thrust of her book. But I’m not sure I completely buy it. I don’t know what the answer is.