Badges vs. curiosity: What should motivate students?

Digital badges can be seen as a great motivator or a way to cheapen education. Where are you on the extrinsic/intrinsic motivation spectrum? (Image via ClassBadges)

Digital badges can be seen as a great motivator or a way to cheapen education. Where are you on the extrinsic/intrinsic motivation spectrum? (Image via ClassBadges)

As a member of the Austin, Texas, class of the Google Teacher Academy, I’ve been fortunate to be exposed to some great professional learning already.

The academy starts in just over two weeks, but I already have learned so much and feel like I know many of the people in my class. We have a Google Plus community for updating each other about the academy or about whatever questions or interests we have. Plus, there’s a very busy Voxer group (learn about Voxing for professional learning here) and a constantly running Google Hangouts chat.

It’s my job to bring the best of my GTA experience to you here, so here’s something that generated plenty of conversation in our Voxer group. I hope it will generate some conversation here in the Ditch That Textbook community.

The topic of badges was brought up. Badges are digital proof of completing some achievement that you can display to others. The digital version of these badges can be displayed on a class website, through a separate website like ClassBadges, or anywhere students will go to view them.

For some students, badges can be great motivators. Badges show the world (and their classmates) what they’ve accomplished. They’re a concrete, finite goal to strive for with a clear reward at the end. (I think “concrete” is a fair word to describe something made of pixels!)

For other students, it can cheapen the learning process. Using them can come off as “I’ll give you a cookie if you …” motivation. Some would argue that students should strive to learn what’s worth learning without having extra rewards for it. A fine education and satisfying their own curiosity should be motivating in itself.

The bigger-picture idea that this discussion sheds light on is motivation. Extrinsic motivation, in this case, needs something on the outside to motivate (like badges). Intrinsic motivation just needs the internal drive and desire of the student.

Every teacher seems to fall somewhere on the extrinsic/intrinsic motivation spectrum. (Be thinking about where you are for the comments later!)

For me, personally, I’m not above using any means necessary to help my students learn. In one class last week, we created and sang a song to help us remember the currencies of Spanish-speaking countries. In the video I created to show students the lyrics, I ended it with a picture of me wearing a dolphin hat with a blue and white pom pom dangling down as hair. (See? Nothing is below me!)

I will tell crazy stories in Spanish to get kids to internalize new Spanish grammar. I will help them come up with wild mnemonic devices to help them remember vocabulary terms. And, yes, I would use a series of badges if that would motivate some of my students.

The truth of the matter is that some of my students just aren’t very intrinsically motivated. Some of them are and will work doggedly until they graduate high school to learn in my class, but that just doesn’t work for others. Blame it on an education system that touts compliance more than personal discovery or whatever you’d like. Those particular students need some direction, and they need some motivation beyond “you should want to learn this.” (That’s why I have stickers and candy and competitive review games in my class!)

Badges and stickers and other forms of extrinsic motivation sometimes can lead to intrinsic motivation. If a series of badges is set up well, students will need to learn certain skills or information to be able to complete certain benchmarks for a badge. Learning the requisites for the badge can spark a desire to know more, and the motivation for learning shifts.

You can’t be excited about something you don’t know exists. Extrinsic motivation can get you there.

Although I’ve written heavily about the power of extrinsic motivation here, I really think I fall in the middle of the motivation spectrum. I think a healthy mix of both is crucial to meet every student where he or she is. My goal is to provide plenty of “Ooh, I want that!” reactions and “Hmm, that’s interesting” reactions.

I don’t see any teaching technique as below me, and that includes introducing “shiny things” as rewards to get kids to learn sometimes.

OK, it’s your turn! Where are you on the motivation spectrum? Do you lean more toward intrinsic or extrinsic motivation? Leave your thoughts in a comment below!

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