First, new header courtesy of Dy/Dan’s link to some stunning photography by Maria Moore. I’m just a sucker for how beads of rain make anything beautiful.

And then there’s this.

Beads for Good Deeds

Beads for Good Deeds is a character-building program that we run once a year at my middle school. Kids and adults are given a necklace of rubber cord with a “starter bead” on it; for each time they are “caught being good,”they receive a bead. Kids can not ask for beads, and they can also recommend staff members for beads in writing. Years in the making now, it’s not uncommon to see staff and students wearing yards’ worth of beads they’ve saved. It’s eye-catching, fun, implemented with fanfare, has tremendous student buy-in, and was conceived by a fellow faculty member whose intelligence, kindness, and creativity I respect a great deal.

I hate Beads for Good Deeds Week.

In a related request I’ve been trying to get to for months, a couple of folks have been asking for a promised second installation on a book on intrinsic motivation which has changed my professional life, Ed Deci’s Why We Do What We Do. (Try reading this to get a general overview.) It’s fitting to take this theory up again now, I think, because– not to put too fine a point on it– BFGD Week exemplifies nearly everything which Ed Deci warns educators against.

I’ve set this up like a FAQ. Skim through it at will.

A Theoretical Teacher’s Questions

Ok, so why should I pay attention to this theory again?

25 years of corroborated, peer-reviewed psychological research. Details here.

The general theory is that extrinsic rewards, without tremendously specific implementation, have a nearly universal negative affect on students’ creativity, long term retention, problem solving, and general learning. Supporting a student’s personal autonomy, in contrast, positively affects all these things.

What’s wrong with being rewarded for being a good person?

It’s not the good behavior that’s wrong—it’s the means by which we reinforce the behavior. Deci’s research (both in and out of schools) suggests that when you extrinsically reward kids for good behavior, their internal motives for engaging in—and retaining—the behavior usually drop dramatically. The reward, versus the behavior itself, becomes the goal. Engaging in the behavior at all is then only a result of being observed doing the behavior—when the observer vanishes, so does the behavior. Sound like Beads for Good Deeds to you?

Deci also makes the point that “being a good person”, particularly to kids, can be extremely nebulous, meaning anything that the observer wants it to mean. For responsible rewards to work (see below), there must be extreme clarity about what behaviors are expected. In BFGD, everything from picking up a dropped book to getting an A on a test can be rewarded.

Are you saying that I should just let students run wild? Where do discipline and limit-setting work into this?

To answer this question Deci uses the example of a painter who is also a babysitter. This person habitually shows up late for babysitting to finish a work of art. If we ask that the artist show up on time, aren’t we limiting his creative autonomy, he asks? And is that something we really want?

No, to both questions. An autonomous person is one who is internally healthy—who feels competent, in charge of the outcomes of their behavior, engaged in a meaningful activity, and who is interpersonally connected. Deci spends the entire second half of the book explaining that autonomy is therefore neither selfishness, nor (ironically) the same as our all-consuming American focus on competitive individualism. (In fact, competition is one of the factors that decreases intrinsic motivation as well.)

Limit-setting, then, is necessary for that connectedness—that responsible behavior towards others. “The really important question, then,” Deci writes, “is how can we avoid being permissive, without creating gridlock?”

His answer: align yourself with the student. Recognize to the student that he or she is a proactive subject, rather than an object to be manipulated or controlled. Set limits—in an autonomy-supportive way.

I wonder how Beads for Good Deeds does this, exactly. There’s some room for it, through the written recs folks can give; but I don’t know if this suffices. And no matter how many times students are told “It’s not a competition,” I can’t see how competition is avoided when the entire point of BFGD is to accrue a tangible good for deliberate display.

Should I add that learning to use interpersonal competition for defining self-worth is one of the specific developmental dangers for middle school-aged kids?

My students would throw a fit if I removed our reward system. They LOVE earning our pizza parties. Doesn’t this mean that rewards are effective?

Rewards work, no doubt. The question is, though: do they work for the stated aims of school? That is, do they promote long term retention of our material, self-motivated citizenship, and a lifelong love of learning?

I’ll quote Deci directly on this.

“The first {problem} is that once you have begun to use rewards to control people, you cannot go easily back. When people behave to get rewards, those behaviors will last only so long as the rewards are forthcoming. The second problem is that once people are oriented towards rewards, they will all too likely take the shortest or quickest path to get to them.”

Deci treats pizza as reward explicitly as an example for schools, in fact. I myself have had several conversations with classes where my students, honoring me with their honesty, have been very frank about the numerous “shortcuts” they’ve taken over their academic careers for a reward. I wonder what shortcuts kids ingeniously engineer during Beads for Good Deeds Week. They’d have to get quite clever about it. It makes me wonder if, in a terrible irony, BFGD actually encourages a worse kind of immorality than simply skimming through a book for a pizza.

Doesn’t intrinsic motivation “reward” you too, however? Does this mean it’s a bad thing to feel good about your accomplishments?

Not at all. “The rewards linked to intrinsic motivation,” says Deci, “are the feelings of enjoyment and accomplishment that accrue spontaneously as a person engages in the target activities.” While this is clearly “rewarding,” it is not anywhere near an extrinsic “reward.”

The experience also goes deeper than mere pleasure. “There is an aspect of intrinsic motivation,” writes Deci, “that is almost spiritual. It has to do with vitality, dedication, transcendence.” The University of Chicago psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls this “being in flow”—when time disappears, when the thrill of being in the present moment is so great that you can’t wait to get back to it.

I’m almost hesitant to ask readers to close their eyes and imagine a school where encouraging this experience for students is its highest priority.

Is praise an extrinsic award? I praise my kids all the time.

Yes and no. Praise is a different kind of extrinsic reward than others, but it has some of the same dangers. It requires an eagle-eye attention to one’s motives. Minimizing controlling language (such as “living up to expectations” or “doing as you should”) is essential. Simple statements such as “you’ve done well” keep interest and persistence at a high level; controlling language had the same empirical effect as other extrinsic rewards in decreasing intrinsic motivation.

Is there any way at all to offer rewards responsibly?

The burden of Deci’s research indicates that it is the CONTROLLING INTENT of rewards which taints them. The less you use rewards to control, the less they negatively affect intrinsic motivation. As a simple means of acknowledgement, or of gratitude, they can be a different story. As Deci writes succinctly, however: “Offering rewards in a non-controlling way requires a kind of deep honesty that often eludes people.”

Conclusion: Beads, or Legos?

There was an article I caught in Rethinking Schools recently which has stayed with me, where a group of teachers wrestled with the implications of a play “society” their elementary-age students spontaneously developed around the use of a set of Legos. It wasn’t so much their conclusions that impressed me—I think they could be argued with– but the fact that they sat down, with care and attention, and collectively and critically thought about all the implications of the Legos.

I love my building and colleagues—they are arguably among the most caring, intelligent, and forward thinking I know. We can do this critical approach, and do it often– but not enough around this program. I wish we did.

As for me, if someone asks why I’m not doling out beads or wearing mine, I’m honest about it. But I deliberately don’t badmouth the program to the kids, since that limits the opportunities for the kids to make their own decisions about Beads for Good Deeds. Since the whole point is to value their autonomy, I try to give it to them.

I give my beads out–one only– to each of my students the first class of the week. When they ask me why, I say, “for being you.”

I ask them all gently—for the nth time in the school year—to think about whether a reward in their hand makes something worth doing.

And my own necklace goes quietly into my five year old daughter’s dress up box.

8 thoughts on “Beads

  1. Blah! Why can’t you just ignore decades of research and enjoy this? The kids will never know the difference. In fact, they’ll think it actually works. I mean, seriously, we ignore research all the time. Way to be a Grumpy McGrumperton!

  2. @All: Joe works with me in my building and thinks this gives him some kind of permission to tease me fairly regularly. 😉

  3. It’s spelled “Mihály Csíkszentmihályi.” Sorry, can’t help it – I’m going to blame it on being a math teacher. (Maybe WordPress will mess up all the accents when this is published – would serve me right 🙂

    Thanks for this post! I’m through most of Deci’s book – but must put it away for a month while finishing another ed class. Sigh.

  4. @H: fixed. Embarrassing. As the former ESL teacher I’m usually the one yelling about getting accent marks right. 🙂

  5. I’m going to be the rogue of all the commentary here and take a different path. I suspect cyber-crucifixion may be a temptation for some, but remember, that would go against the gestalt of the espoused theory in this post.

    Ed Deci’s theories remind me a great deal of William Glasser’s Choice Theory. I read Glasser’s book in its entirety, as I fancy myself a rather open-minded individual and am quite willing to embrace change for the sake of the students. (In fact I am currently embracing “Whatever It Takes”, which proposes major change in how we do interventions if we truly believe all students can learn. Great book, btw)

    However, I have some problems with the theories proposed:

    1. We live in a world of rewards/consequences. We pay our bills, we get rewarded with electricity. We work our tails off, we get that promotion, EVEN THOUGH we may often not enjoy the work that gets us to that promotion. Autonomy may convince us that we don’t see the point, but let’s be realistic here: so often we do things whose point we just don’t get so we can receive the reward of keeping our job. As a special ed. teacher, there are many bureaucratic aspects to the IEP that simply don’t make sense at all, but I do them because if I want to keep teaching the students, (and I think that outcome is a good thing for all concerned, in all humility) I do it.

    2. The theory presumes (or seems to presume in my perception) that students will think like adults. The teenager mind (I’ll limit my population to teenagers because I teach high school) is not yet fully developed. There are scores of research that indicate that the portion of the brain that controls rational, logical thinking in teenagers is often not developed until they are about 20-years-old; in other words, they are literally not in their right minds! (See clinical psychologist Anthony Wolf, author of, “Get Out of My Life, But First Can You Take Me and Cheryl to the Mall?”) While we certainly want them to be autonomous, (and they will whether we like it or not!) rewards have been shown to increase desired outcomes. Even though these desired outcomes are for the short term, quite often when accomplished, then at THAT point the accomplishment itself becomes the reward, and the tangible reward at that point means almost nothing, except that the student needed that “carrot” dangled in front of him/her to get to that accomplishment in the first place.

    I have a student now, in fact, who has always had the ability to test well but has been apathetic. I made a suggestion to the Principal for our state testing from last year: if he completes the test and does his earnest best as evidenced by his score, she would take him out to dinner. The test monitor reported that he worked diligently and in fact he scored in the “Mastery” and “Advanced” ranges. He admitted he would not have done this if not for the reward of dining at “The Principal’s Table” as he called it.

    Now eventually, of course, we wish the students to do things from an intrinsic motivation. Let’s face it, however- many, if not most students, are not intrinsically motivated to go to school in the first place! Until that maturity that comes with age kicks in, rewards are very appropo. Glasser’s Choice Theory suggests sitting down with a defiant student and talking about his feelings about the choice that the student wishes to make and from there draw out a more internalized motivation from which the student will then choose the best course of action. Please!! These are teenagers; not adults! Let’s be careful about expecting from them what they are often inherently incapable of delivering.

    25 years of research can be wrong if one continually looks for what one his hoping to find.

  6. Dina
    I am so over this bead week.
    I totally agree with the research and basic COMMON SENSE. I am also a parent. I do not reward my children for bringing home a good grade with some piece of plastic crap. The reward itself is in the knowledge gained, the achievement accomplished. The bauble is worth nothing- the wisdom is priceless. I’m just saying…..PS HI JOE!

  7. Heh, I actually scored one for the Gipper this week, based on your blog. Stupid Gipper. Anyway, I found some really awesome beads that change color when exposed to UV light from the sun. Then I gave them to every kid and told them that I appreciated their acceptance of my scientific nerdiness. They loved those beads and said they even accepted my nerdiness.

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