Innovation In Giving


Innovation in Giving, Innovation in Giving

“The biscuit trick”- should schools pay our kids to achieve?

Michael Simpson, Year Here

There’s something funny about watching a child’s eyes light up at the sound of the word “biscuit”. From a disgruntled Year 10 pupil to a hysterical, chair-throwing, limb-flailing Year 8 – I’ve watched the offer of a biscuit solve even the most turbulent situations. The modern carrot-and-stick technique, “the biscuit trick” is often a last-resort strategy in the ‘inclusion unit’ at Hatch End High School in Harrow. Simple yet effective, an artfully dispensed chocolate digestive or custard cream can often be enough to calm, distract or motivate kids in the difficult throes of adolescence. It begs the question, if a sugary mesh of butter and flour can do this much, how far could larger rewards, or even financial incentives go towards motivating disadvantaged youngsters and narrowing the gaps in educational achievement across the UK?

A major study by Stephen Gorard of the University of Birmingham recently concluded that bribing children from poor homes with cash rewards to attend school, do their homework and read books is the most effective way to improve their exam results. In a review of more than 165,000 research studies and journal articles, it was found that dangling financial carrots (or biscuits) is a more effective way of increasing the success of disadvantaged students than other large-scale initiatives aimed at raising aspirations.

Working as a learning mentor at a secondary school, it doesn’t take long to notice “the biscuit trick” manifesting itself in a number of ways. From stickers, drinks and chocolate to the Vivo Miles system, in which students can gain credits towards getting prizes including iPods- incentives are everywhere.

The notion behind this technique is simple. If children receive incentives for a certain behaviour or goal, they are more likely to achieve that goal.

Harvard economist Roland Fryer Jr ran a test among 18,000 children in cities across the US, paying out a total of $6.3 million in financial incentives. Fryer found that when cash is given for something every student could control, like reading books or attending class, the results are better than when they were rewarded for more intangible tasks, like achieving better grades. Basically, kids know how to attend school, limit bad behaviour, and read more books but they don’t always know how to improve test results and develop their skills.

Giving financial rewards has been said to pose a number of risks. The University of Rochester’s Edward Deci’s experiments in the 1970s found that money-like other tangible rewards- was not a brilliant motivator in the long term. When material rewards were taken away, the acts that they had been rewarding in the first place often diminished, arguably reducing the intrinsic value of the task itself. Some teachers have argued that rewarding children for what they should be motivated to do anyway is a dangerous game to play.

Rather than just look at financial incentives, we could cast an eye over the popularised ‘nudge’ theory- the idea that some people can be pushed to behave in certain ways through emphasising ‘social norms’. Or perhaps we could deploy the notion of semantic priming- the idea that the words that we use can have a major impact on the way that the human unconscious influences conscious actions. It can all sound very daunting, but with some positive peer pressure, gentle framing of language to encourage educational engagement, and the possibility of small financial incentives for those who are most disadvantaged, we could arrive at a more positive horizon for educational disadvantage that isn’t dependent on a one-tiered approach.

While more good research needs to be done on the effects of incentives, particularly financial ones, real impact must be made in addressing educational disadvantage that looks beyond a one-pronged quick fix solution. As Fryer says, ‘Kids should learn for the love of learning…but what if they’re not?’. From my experience the “biscuit trick” works, but it surely shouldn’t be the only one up our sleeve.

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Posted by Lynette on May 22, 2013