February 3, 2013

Sticker Economics

When I first started teaching I was determined to not use stickers as incentive. Stickers are the scrip of children, the dirty prison currency exchanged between jailer and inmate, a bribe given to increase production at all costs. I had decided that kids should not turn to stickers for motivation but should instead turn inward and take satisfaction from their own accomplishments. That naive clear-eyed piano teacher had no idea what was coming.

I have no idea how old stickers are, or how long they've been used to motivate kids but I imagine it's been a very long time. They're used to keep kids quiet, make them do their homework, use the toilet, NOT hit their brother, and so on for as long into the future as can be seen. The basic struggle I was having as a beginning teacher was the balance between intrinsic and extrinsic reward systems. Extrinsic rewards being the type of rewards where you do work because you will get something in return such as a paycheck or a diploma, or in this case a smiley face bubble sticker. Intrinsic motivation is when an individual does a thing because he or she wants to. This is the "doing it for it's own sake" type of motivation.

The reason was so hung up on this that intrinsic motivation has been shown to be a better long term motivator for a particular habit or skill. For those who rely on extrinsic motivation, the will to continue an activity usually wanes as the reward becomes either commonplace or decreases in amount. A good experiment to find out whether you are intrinsically or extrinsically motivated is ask yourself "do I like my job enough that if I got paid less than I do now, would I stay?". Of course there are other factors associated, but there's the basic premise.

I've seen the proof of intrinsic motivation in my own students. Adults and late beginners are almost always intrinsically motivated, and have put themselves into piano lessons because they want to be there. These students are also my best both in terms of rate of progress and in terms of attitude. The extrinsically minded kids typically learn in bursts, at a slower rate, and are more interested in which sticker they get than in getting a sticker at all. Some of them also have miniature fits when they don't get stickers....because they're children after all.

There are exceptions on the sticker-kids side. Some of the kids who like getting stickers also move at a fast pace and don't seem to be upset if I forget their reward. There are no exceptions on the intrinsically motivated side however. All of these students move quickly, and look for no further reward than a piece well played.

So why did I turn to the dark side when the results are so blindingly clear? Because I can't fight years of precedence. I am still, on the whole, a stingy Scrooge-like dealer of stickers. Kids will transfer into my studio with books so plastered with stickers that you can't read their titles anymore. Where once was an adorable notebook with fuzzy dogs on the front is now a war zone of butterflies, stars, and Lisa Frank acid-trip designs. They are in for a shock when it is revealed that I may give out one prize every lesson. Maybe. There is no sure thing.

I talked to my father about this problem a year ago as I was starting to cave in and dole out stickers from a worn out little paper bag like a drug dealer with a conscience. As someone who has worked in consulting and human resources for a number of years I figured he could give me some advice on the topic. He told me about the concept of intermittent reinforcement. Under this plan I give out stickers based on good behavior and good practice habits as normal. The twist is that sometimes I don't give them out, even if the kid is deserving. This has been shown in more academic studies (and I'm assuming in dogs) to increase motivation and create better habits. If a student doesn't know when the sticker is coming, she won't rely on it, and will try harder all of the time.

When I tell friends about intermittent reinforcement they think it's cruel. It's not. Although to be honest I have no idea how well it works in the context of my piano studio. Some kids don't get any because they don't seem like they need them. Some kids get two because they we're both pleasant and practiced. Some kids don't get any because they had a temper tantrum. Some kids get them because it was the only way to get them to stop.

Despite the stress that stickers bring into my teaching I've become fascinated by them and the hold that they have on students. I've ditched the dirty brown bag and upgraded to a pink plastic box. I've accrued a mean collection. I now cruise the sticker aisle at the store and keep a watch out for the latest technology.

Don't hate the player, hate the game.

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