Friday, September 10, 2010

Carrots and Sticks, Where do they get you?

I check out the talks on once in a while, and have a browse through for something inspirational if I feel that I need a creative kick.  This is where I first saw the famous talk by Sir Ken Robinson about how schools kill creativity.  I still go back and watch it from time to time.

Earlier this week I came across this talk by Dan Pink (who used to write speeches for Al Gore).  The essence of it is that science has clearly shown that carrots and sticks (rewards and punishments) do not work for improving results and productivity when anything more complex than routine tasks are involved.  If you are a mindless worker doing a mindless job, then perhaps some external motivation might help give you the incentive to work faster.  When it comes to something even slightly complex that involves thinking about a solution, such as in most forms of learning, then rewards and punishment generate too much pressure.  This pressure results in anxiety and performance then decreases according to the level of anxiety.

What does work well for improving productivity and results are internal motivators such as satisfaction at a job well done and a sense of contributing to something meaningful.  I would add to Dan’s list something about basic needs being met, so that your mind is on the job rather than worrying about those needs.

That these internal motivators work is clear and obvious.  Google use this to give their employees 20% of time to do whatever they want and about half of their major innovations arise out of this “free time”.  Wikipedia is another example that Dan Pink uses, contrasting it’s success with Encarta.  Encarta was made using paid employees and wikipedia was made using the incentive to be a part of an incredibly useful project that would benefit many.  It is clear which was more successful, with Wikipedia being considered as more accurate than many text encyclopedias according to some!  The debate about the usefulness and accuracy of information from the Internet is mostly irrelevant because we should be savvy when it comes to interpreting knowledge anyway.  After all, everybody writes with a bias, even me!

So we can see that carrots and sticks get you nowhere.  I’m particularly concerned with their use in education and the immense pressure to perform that students are under.  I think that we would have a much more skilled and resilient bunch of people leaving high school if we just scrapped the external exams, took the pressure off, and let students learn by following their noses with teachers showing them how to develop their learning skills.