Brett Kavanaugh, Expected Behaviours and the Importance of Intrinsic Rewards

2 October 2018

I hope you are paying attention to the ongoing saga over the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, the prospective Supreme Court judge in the USA. I say that in part as a teacher of politics, particularly US politics, but also with half an eye on the wider implications for all of us.

There is something very big at stake with Kavanaugh’s nomination. As a key member of the nine-justice Supreme Court, he will have influence over fundamental decisions on rights and liberties. His appointment, once confirmed, is for life. This, therefore, really matters.

Our expectation is that behaviour will follow according to importance. Kavanaugh’s argumentative and aggressive performance to the Senate Judiciary Committee was, therefore, a surprise. We do not expect individuals in these positions to behave in this way. Much like the President whom he may serve, when you observe behaviour that is counter-intuitive, it is disconcerting.

Last summer may feel a long way away now. Right at the end of it, a different story emerged out of the US, based on research by the Harvard Kennedy School of Government in Massachusetts (“The Demotivating Effect (and Unintended Message) of Retrospective Awards”). They examined the effect of rewards schemes on more than 15,000 students in 14 school districts in California. These rewards schemes were focussed on improving attendance rates in schools.

There is nothing unusual in that. The prevalence of rewards schemes for attendance in UK schools is high. We have been set national targets against which we will be judged. Those targets filter down through, usually, pastoral teams inside schools and end up with the individual. One way, we believe, of incentivising that individual is to ensure that they are rewarded if they achieve a certain attendance level.

The study looked at two types of rewards: pre-announced awards (prospective) and surprise awards (retrospective). They then assessed the impact on attendance of these two types of rewards.

The findings were surprising and run contrary to a clearly held view in schools. Prospective rewards were seen to have no impact on improving attendance. Of greater concern, retrospective rewards had a negative impact on subsequent attendance. The research suggested that this latter set of rewards inadvertently signalled that the desired behaviour had been achieved and therefore demotivated the ambition to reach it in the future.

The study illustrates the extent to which we determine what ‘normal’ looks like. By rewarding good attendance, there is an implied suggestion that the expected, normal level is lower. Such a conclusion is hugely disconcerting given the prevalence of reward schemes across schools and I wonder at the extent to which schools will feel able to ‘trust’ this research.

Perhaps the most comfortable fit is to return to the metacognition debate. At its heart, that is based around the belief that intrinsic rather than extrinsic actions are far more likely to be beneficial. A student who determines what they need to do to solve a problem is far more likely to succeed than one who is tempted by rewards. A teacher who believes in the changes they are making will positively act on that belief more than one who is simply aiming to achieve performance management targets. A school that consistently demonstrates that learning for its own sake is important will achieve more.

By the time you read this, the Kavanaugh nomination may have taken a few more twists and turns. Don’t be surprised by the surprises. As illustrated above, life does not always fit the expectations that we have of it.

Mark Woodlock


The Blue School, Wells

Posted on 2 October 2018
Posted in: Blog

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