Volume 7, Number 1, 1997

On Research

Rewarding creativity

Should young children be given rewards for good performance? Some educators say no, arguing that rewards lessen creativity because a child focuses on the prize rather than on learning for its own sake.

However, research by Robert Eisenberger, professor of psychology, and Judy Cameron of the University of Alberta shows that-given appropriately-rewards are an effective tool in stimulating interest and creativity among elementary school-age children.

Rewards should be given for good performance and effort, not just performing, Eisenberger says. They should encourage a child to try to do well in a task. If rewards are given to everyone, regardless of effort, there is less incentive to do well, he says.

In the classroom and at home, tasks should be challenging, but geared to a child's capability, so that they are not impossible to meet, he advises.

Eisenberger says it's important that children understand what is meant by creativity and what is expected of them to earn a reward. He has a training exercise to get them started: He gives them everyday objects (such as rubber bands, paper clips and boxes) and asks the children what their usual functions are. Then, he asks them to think up some unusual uses. Kids come up with such ideas as using the rubber band as a bracelet, the paper clip as an earring and the box as a planter. In this way, they learn what is meant by creativity and are rewarded for their efforts.

After the training session, children are given sheets of paper with blank circles on them and are asked to create drawings using the circles. By comparing and tabulating the repetition of the drawings, creativity is determined and rewarded. For example, since most children draw happy/sad faces in the circles, these are not rated highly on the creativity scale. However, a creative child might make the circle into a fish or a ladybug or the top of a soft drink bottle. These show ingenuity and creativity, and the children then are rewarded.

When carrying out these experiments, those who were rewarded in the training portion worked harder to be creative in the circle exercise, suggesting that reward for creativity in one task carries onto a different task.

"What we discovered," Eisenberger says, "is that when rewards are given across the board, regardless of performance, they are not effective. A reward-whether it is praise, a good grade, free time in the class room, pizza, a tangible gift or money-should be given for carrying out a task well.

"Another factor is that children must clearly understand what goals they are trying to achieve, whether it is showing improvement in math or reading, whatever. This holds true for children at home and in school," he says.

"Common sense, experience and accumulated research show that rewards, if used correctly, can give kids incentives to do well," he says.

"This carries on into adult life in the workplace, as well," Eisenberger says. "People will say they like a task better after praise or a tangible reward that depends on the quality of performance. When compensation and promotion do not depend on competence, when employees learn that their performance is irrelevant to rewards, there is less incentive to work harder."

-Sue Swyers Moncure