It Started with a Pack of Cards: Motivation and Reward

When I was young, my Dad would encourage my brother Luke and I to work out with him in the shed every week… almost every week… I think.

When he could get us to do it anyway.

The Cool Kids: Luke and I preparing for a perfomance, before we put our costumes on…

Two decades have passed and my memories have blurred, but I distinctly remember feelings of both annoyed reluctance and genuine motivation in connection to this routine of ours. I didn’t always want to do it, but I also enjoyed doing it – when, that is, Luke and I actually pushed ourselves out of the house to actually do it. Perhaps fitness and family bonding had something to do with why Dad was so enthused to see us exercise to a greater degree than we did with our Nintendo controllers. Maybe even masculine identity-building was part of it – if so, it failed miserably (see the above image). But the only clear recollection I have of my father’s own explanation of the routine was that working out is what had taught him ‘discipline’. He didn’t mean discipline in the sense that a parent might usually evoke the term; he meant motivation.

In order for us to learn how to be motivated, of course, Dad would have to motivate us. At that time in our lives, Luke and I collected Spiderman and X-Men collector cards respectively. Yep, we were that cool. Whenever we agreed/consented/capitulated to train in the shed, Dad would buy us a pack of said cards each. I hope this didn’t go on for too long, because it would have cost a fortune and I’m starting to feel guilty, but it worked. This is easily the earliest memory I have of learning the relationship between motivation and reward – the subject that concerns me in this blog.

The stuff that geeks are made of…?

Ever since those packs of cards, I’ve frequently used rewards to motivate myself – whether it’s hiring a movie, spending an hour on the Xbox, or setting aside the time for some very minor thing that I now no longer remember. It hasn’t always worked; I often get distracted, lazy, apathetic. I’ve sometimes cheated and given myself the reward anyway. Failure always comprises many of the steps on the road to success.

These days I’m using Habitica to build habits and accomplish personal and professional goals, which is working pretty well. Of course even effective strategies need to be re-evaluated over time no matter how motivated you are. I’ve never known anyone – students or teachers, family members or friends – for whom maintaining motivation hasn’t been a source of real struggle at some point. Not only can it be a problem for all, but I sense it’s also something that doesn’t get reflected on nearly enough – and I include myself in this.

Screenshot from Habitica app (with thanks for permission)

Perhaps it’s a truism that (self-)motivation is the key to success, and that reward plays a central part in this; however, it feels to me like an issue that’s overlooked and overshadowed on a daily basis. Having taught at university for over a decade, I’ve witnessed a growing crisis of engagement – responsibility for which is borne by both teachers and students alike. To what extent this crisis stems from things like the socio-cultural shifts of the digital age or the recent formation of a so-called ‘Ps Get Degrees’ mentality, which encourages only bare minimum efforts, is not my concern here. What I’m interested in is how authentic engagement in 21st century educational contexts comes about. To this end, I’ve frequently adopted gamification as a means of encouraging online activity, and have found that explicitly and reflexively highlighting the theme of motivation and reward go hand-in-hand with this.

***Thanks to Luke Brown for his creative manipulation of the above film image, which my students should note classifies as parody (so I can use it), but does not conform to assessment requirements – i.e. don’t do this in your own blogs!

Thinking of rewards that motivate oneself can be immensely difficult for many people, which on the one hand seems to me very sad – even tragic – but might also be seen as an indictment of society, and its educational systems. My identity as a teacher has been formed within an environment (and I’m not singling out an institution here; I’m evoking an entire industry) that expects – assumes – that sufficient motivation is (or should be) already there. From the beginning of my career, I’ve been implicitly taught that even though the crisis of engagement is a teacher’s ‘problem’, it shouldn’t be a teacher’s problem – and therefore isn’t something a teacher should be providing a possible solution, or solutions, for. But in many ways, effective teaching is about motivating students, but the two have also been held apart. At the same time, as mentioned above, the road sign of responsibility points both ways. The best motivation is self-motivation, and teachers can only do so much.

I could write a lot more about holding carrots before us to drive us along, but the above reflection was in large part written to introduce and contextualise the video below. My conversation with Clim Pacheco – an engineer, manager, educator and idea-preneur – is  somewhat different from those that I generally film for students, but given I’ve recently designed a few units that rely on intense online collaboration, with student interactions and media-making essentially building the majority of unit content, this video also seems perfectly timed. I don’t need to explain how this chat with Clim came about – we actually discuss this toward the end – so I’ll let it speak for itself…

I’ve made a lot of important videos for students, but this one stands out as particularly crucial. Clim and I don’t talk about the subject matter of a specific unit, or even focus primarily on education, but many of the points raised seem to me essential for people to reflect on – and not only the video’s intended student audience. If you don’t want to watch us for half an hour, the following video is also available in podcast form.

Whether you watch or just listen, I strongly recommend going the whole journey.

And after you do, reward yourself!! 🙂

Further information about Clim Pacheco can be found on the website of Business Transformation Solutions.

12 Comments Add yours

  1. Thanks Adam I really liked this. I think we get lost in the society and our lives. The idea of discipline = motivation &/+ engagement.. is so true.. & simple, root-like.

    1. Adam Brown says:

      Thanks Hayley, great to hear – completely agree; it’s something fundamental that we’re all always working on. I motivated a 30 min run to the video store this afternoon by rewarding myself with renting some dvds. Would have been an awkward visit if I’d walked, but it worked!! 🙂

  2. lilyjg says:

    Really inspiring to hear Clim speak about his journey through business and how his career has developed! As someone who is currently trying to ‘map out’ a career path this interview really resonates with me and gives me reassurance that there is no rush to achieve personal and professional goals. Thanks!

    1. Adam Brown says:

      Thanks Lily, fantastic to hear it resonated! If you’re already doing the mapping, you’re destined for success 🙂

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