Today, I let my students know which group won the iHistory fieldwork competition. They were really keen to know. Interestingly, the two groups with boys got the top two spots. One of these groups I expected to perform highly, but the other not so highly. Perhaps the fact that it was a competition motivated the boys more than the girls.
Anyway, I’m giving prizes to the first 2 groups. It’s a certain amount of money – they tell me what they want to buy with the money and I get it for them. I don’t know why it hadn’t struck before, but I realised how weird this was. It is as if I am paying them to learn – or at the very least giving material incentives to participate in learning activities. My question is – is there a problem with that?
When I was 14, I entered an essay competition on smoke detectors (of all things) and came 3rd, netting $200. That seems a legitimate reward, as it was outside of the school curriculum. But giving students prizes for their work in this iHistory project somehow seems…well, wrong! Teachers often give prizes (chocolate, vouchers etc) to students for hard work and excellence, and there is no suggestion that this is inappropriate. Why then do I feel that I have done something inappropriate? Maybe it’s because I’ve named a cash amount, which they are able to spend on whatever they like.
I suppose it is a short step from here to giving students financial rewards for meeting high academic standards, as some parents do. I’ve always been uncomfortable with such a practice, because I believe academic achievement brings its own rewards, and that it is not a competition against others, but against the limits of your own mental capabilities.
I think I was doomed to giving material prizes in the iHistory project as soon as I made the fieldwork a ‘competition’ rather than simply an ‘assessment task’. A competition with no prize is a misnomer. On reflection, I think I did need to broaden the reasons for being awarded a prize. “Getting the most answers right” was my criteria for a prize, but there were many more skills involved, such as teamwork and logistical planning. Perhaps these deserved prizes, despite being more difficult to judge.