Do Prizes Motivate Children or Does Praise?

What circumstances encourage people to become “effective, competent, and independent” learners? According to a passage by psychologist Margaret Donaldson in her book, Children’s Minds—a learning environment where children are praised for their work is the most effective. Donaldson explains the traditional way of encouraging children to learn has been to give “extrinsic” rewards to the students for their work—these include “Prizes, privileges, or gold stars” for example. She then walked the reader through a series of studies conducted on preschoolers in which they compared various environments with control groups. Numerous studies studied preschoolers desire to and time spent in drawing within various environments and compared them to a follow up study where those environments were changed to a natural setting to see if they would independently seek and spend time drawing again. All the studies showed that the preschoolers who were offered and given prizes for their work spent less time independently seeking and even enjoying drawing in the followup study than those students who were not offered or given prizes. In one study, these two groups were also compared with two other groups and demonstrated that students who were praised for their drawings at the end instead of given prizes spent the most time independently seeking and spending time drawing in the follow up study and that a final group of students were actually ignored once they finished drawing and not given any attention whatsoever sought drawing the least in the follow up. Donaldson suggested that the results showed a need for “recognition” in children and to have their achievement communicated but that using material reward or prize instead made them feel controlled, something that children do not want. She believes children view prizes as a form of control and so while it will encourage work it will not encourage the free and natural engagement in that activity again when the prize is removed. So how do we get our children to be independent learners that are effective and competent? According to Donaldson’s —Don’t give them prizes but instead, praise them for their work.

While I do find her views on the reasons the praise worked and the prizes did not work to be plausible, I do have a few questions and need more information and studies for me to whole-heartedly agree or to even apply this knowledge to my own students and children: My first issue deals with the conditions in which the prizes and praise were given to the children and the variables that may not have been ruled out. My second issue deals with how the results could change with older children who are closer to going out into the working world.

First, who exactly were given prizes in the prize group? Did every child earn a prize regardless of the efficiency and competency in his or her work? Or were the children in the prize group offered prizes if their work met a certain standard? Were all the children in the praise group told ahead of time, like the prize group that they would receive praise when they finished? The passage seems to suggest that all students were told in the prize group that they would be given a prize and that they all got one while the praise group was not told ahead of time that they would receive praise afterward and no information indicating that all received praise or only some. And even if all received praise, if they were not told ahead of time they would all get praise, they may have given the praise more value because it came as a surprise to them. Even more so if they didn’t know that all the other students received praise as well (again a variable that is not communicated). My concern is that the differences between the prize and praise group could have affected the results, giving us a false appearance that prizes were less effective but praise was more effective. Perhaps if the prize was given at the end as a surprise, it would have been just as effective as the praise. And students were told ahead of time that they would receive praise for their work, it would have been just as ineffective at fostering a desire to learn independently as the prize group. To me if I were told that I would be given a prize or even praise regardless of what I produced, I would indeed feel controlled, but if it were offered for good work, it would motivate me to want to do well and give me a sense of pride if I accomplished the activity and earned the prize or the praise, especially if the prize was something I liked or the praise seemed authentic and not contrived. Praise would not appear authentic to me if I were told ahead of time that I would receive praise in the same way that a prize would not feel as valuable under the same conditions. When we know after the fact or ahead of time or that everyone received an extrinsic reward no matter how well they did, it diminishes our appreciation for the skill or creativity in a learning situation and lessens our desire to want to do well—there is no motivation because we know the prize doesn’t actually determine the value of our work and in the case of universal praise, that the praise itself is not trustworthy. Secondly, if we find little value in the prize or praise we were given, that too can lessen our recognition of a work’s value. I think as humans we do find a natural enjoyment for learning something or doing a good job at something if we find value in it yet we also won’t do it if the environment hints to us that there is no value. In the cartoon movie “The Incredibles” when Dash’s mom told him that everyone was special, he replied with something to the effect as “that means no one is.” But when he was actually given the opportunity to do his best at running in an attempt to win the race and show off his special talent, he did well. Now of course, it doesn’t show hypothetical future races where a prize was not offered but again, my example is only to clarify a situation when prizes are given for a job well done rather than a prize for all regardless of skill. Perhaps after winning a prize for a job well done, he would have recognized that he had a gift and therefore enjoyed the activity later or even without the prize because he learned there was value to it.

Secondly, even if all the variables ruled that praise was still more effective than praise, how might these same scenarios affect teenage children rather than preschoolers? While learning may still be the key here—do teenagers see prizes as a form of control as well? Or have they been conditioned by the educational system and by capitalism to find enjoyment and independence in learning environments without feeling controlled in order to prepare them for the real world? When I was in high school for example, praise was not enough for me to earn good grades—I cared about going out with friends and with making money at my job more than praise. And after my year in 9th grade, my father discovered that despite his praise, I had earned a couple of C’s and even one D (on account of a boy I enjoyed chatting with in 6th period Health). So the following three years of high school, my father offered me money for my grades. I earned 20 dollars for every A I earned each semester and 10 dollars for every B. But I would earn no money for C’s or lower. Not only did I earn the A’s and B’s but when I moved on to college and was no longer given money for my grades, I still maintained a strong desire to succeed. Could I have viewed the grades in college as my prize? Does that negate Donaldson’s interpretation that prizes produce results but no longer produce them when they are taken away? My answer to that would be even if that is so, what does it matter? We live in a world where people are rewarded often for learning and working well. Students earn good grades; creativity and talent can often earn money, prizes, as well as praise (professional athletes, writers, artists); and hard work is also rewarded with compensation like money (workers) . While it might feel good to believe we want people to learn for learning’s sake, we don’t live in a world where that really matters anyway.

Donaldson believes that learners find prizes as a form of control and therefore while they will work for their prizes, will not independently seek to learn in a similar activity when the prize is removed. I say, this may be true if prizes are given to everyone, but perhaps if prizes were only given for a job well done, the results could be different. Similarly the results could be different with older children who may need the rewards to motivate them and instill them with a recognition that they can do well at something and find pleasure in that alone. I believe while we should most certainly praise students for their work, but if we only motivate our children with praise instead of prizes, we don’t prepare them for a world in capitalism, but instead, a world of communism. And while theoretically, working for praise might seem nice, it does not produce good work if everyone is praised—praise for all work can reduce a desire to improve the quality of the work. This produces mediocrity and in the working world, it certainly doesn’t help an economy.

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