I just read an article about a sixth grade teacher who turned his class into a role playing game (RPG). If you've never played them, the main idea is that you play as a character, often non-human, and that character "levels up" by gaining experience points (XP). Experience points are typically earned by fighting enemies or completing quests. As your character levels up, it becomes stronger, is able to reach new areas of the game which were not previously accessible, or earns other rewards such as better armor or stronger weapons. In the classroom, XP is earned by completing extra homework, participating in class, etc. The children compete against each other in boy vs girl teams, and the rewards are extra recess and a pizza party at the end of the year.
On the surface it seems like a great idea. Most of the negative responses were to the teacher's boy-girl division in team-making, but in the same comment people posted that the idea itself was fantastic. One comment even suggested that it should become a part of the curriculum in all public schools. And why not? It gets kids interested in learning, right? Well... maybe. If you're starting with children who have already lost their intrinsic motivation, then yes. Give them extrinsic motivation to learn the skills they need to be successful.
On the other hand, why should they ever lose their desire to learn? Or their desire to practice new skills just because it feels good to master something you've never been able to do before? If the extrinsic motivation is removed, say by graduating from the class, what happens then? Usually when a motivating factor is removed, the desired behavior stops. It's logical - if you only do something to get a reward, and you stop getting the reward, you'll stop doing it. Research shows, in fact, that children who are given a reward for doing something they enjoy are less likely to choose that activity in the future. Read more about that study here.
Montessori wrote about a teacher who had purchased medals for the "smartest" children, and when the idea was introduced one of the "smarter" boys cried out, "but not for the boys! Not for the boys!" He didn't want his lovely work to be sullied by a reward.
I guess my problem with the game idea has nothing to do with the idea itself. I personally really like the RPGs I play occasionally on my classic Nintendo or Sega Genesis. It's more to do with the fact that it shouldn't be necessary.
This, in my opinion, is why Montessori education is so wonderful. Our model is based on the child's desire to learn and constantly improve himself. We don't use rewards because the work itself is rewarding. It is interesting, meaningful work, and the children want to do it without any external motivation. Beautiful, isn't it?
Welcome to Montessori Moments, a blog written for Dynamite Montessori School in Cave Creek, Arizona. If you'd like to check out our school, please visit Dynamite's website.