The Sawyer Effect and Motivation

For those of you who don’t know the story of Tom Sawyer white washing the fence you can read it here. In the story Mark Twain  demonstrates some features of motivation that are not normally thought about when teachers engage in classroom design.

The first principle of the sawyer effect is that any activity can be made into a game. While this appears to be self evident it has a huge implication to the behaviorist model of human action. In the behaviorist model actions are based completly on their utility of creating rewards or limiting punishments. The emotional state or how the person views the task should have no effect on the motivation to complete the task. As can be clearly seen from the Sawyer story this is not the case. The attitude that a person takes to the task can have a major impact on not only their desire to do the task but can influence others desires as well.

By turning an activity into a form of game the person creates intrinsic motivation to engage with the task. Intrinsic motivation has been shown to lead to better engagement and learning outcomes and it appears that a simple shift in perspective can encourage it in people. This can bee seen in examples like the way in which students will engage with repetitive tasks like the grind in MMORPGS without enthusiasim but will find homework to be meaningless drudgery.

The second principle that the sawyer effect shows is the reverse of the first any game can be changed into work by the offering of rewards contingent on its completion.

“There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger-coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line, in the summer, because the privilege costs them considerable money; but if they were offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work and then they would resign.”

To often teachers reach towards rewards as a method of encouraging motivating students. If you do all your homework then you get an A. This signals that the activity is not worth doing for it’s own value and changes it from a game,  to work.

The next principle

“in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.”

There is very little joy to be had in doing the easy thing. It is often assumed that students will choose the easiest task if given the option. (from a behaviorist stand point this makes perfect sense maximizing the reward to effort ratio) However it is more likely for students to attempt to achieve the more difficult tasks if they are made available to them.

The final principle is best summarized by Mark Twain himself

Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.

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