Friday, July 9, 2010

Shredding Motivation

Here's the experiment: each participant receives a sheet of paper with a random sequence of letters and is asked to find instances where the letter S is followed by another letter S. Each sheet contained ten instances of consecutive Ss and they have to find all ten instances. They get paid $0.55 for the first completed page, $0.50 for the second and so on - thus for the twelfth page on they would get nothing.

The experimenters, Dan Ariely and his team (read more about this in his book The Upside of Irrationality) set the following conditions. In the first, participants write their name at the top of each sheet. Once finished, they handed it to the experimenter who looks it over from top to bottom, nods in a positive way, and places it upside down on a pile. In the second condition, participants are not asked to write their names at the top of the sheet and when they hand it in, the experimenter just places it on the top of the pile without reviewing it or acknowledging the participant. In the third condition, when the participants hand in their sheets, the experimenter simply shreds it. In other words, the difference in this rather meaningless task is that in the first condition, the participant is acknowledged and her work is not anonymous or obviously meaningless (shredded).

Guess which group completed more sheets?

The participants in the acknowledged condition completed an average of 9.03 sheets, those in the shredded condition 6.34 and those in the ignored condition 6.77. The perhaps not so surprising surprise is that simply ignoring the participants' work had almost as much effect as the more dramatic shredding.

Consider the classroom. Consider how many assignments children do. Some children are continuously acknowledged: their work is read aloud, the teacher says kind things. Some children are rather regularly ignored: their work is mediocre at best and beyond "correcting" them (surely a form of "shredding"), there is little to celebrate. And some children have their work routinely "shredded." Perhaps it's not surprising that over time the motivation of a number of children (in our district 30%) steadily decreases, so that by grade 8 they are lounging in the back row, disengaged, scribbling out the minimum and on the road to dropping out.

What could we do differently so that each child - and the work they do - is acknowledged in a meaningful way?


  1. Shelley,

    During our TLCP weekend of discussion, insight and camaraderie I shared a simple idea that works well and acknowledges work in a personal and meaningful way.

    1. Photocopy your hand palm down.
    2. Write the words "Give yourself a pat on the back" somewhere on the page.
    3. Pin the paper on the wall at your students' shoulder level.
    4. Encourage students to use the "pat on the back" when they are proud of themselves or their work.

    It is so great to have students silently get up during class to acknowledge themselves! Pats on the back have been for work, for arriving to class or for focusing on an activity for 25 minutes. It is great for students who need to get up and move around when transitioning between activities. Sometimes there is a brief discussion/sharing with another student seated close by once they return to their seat or with me but the majority of times it is a personal celebration. I love this simple and cost-effective personal "reward."

    Thank you for sharing yourSELF, your knowledge and your passion for our profession. I am in awe of your reading prowess! Could you give me a small "101 Books Every Educator Should Read Before They Die" list?

    Wishing you a September of strength, Jillian

  2. I think I'm going to put a hand in my office! I love the idea. And I love the list idea. Let's start building it together! I think I'll put Carol Dweck's Mindset on the list.