Recently I decided to try two different approaches with my classes to see what would happen. Both classes were given the four 4's task. https://www.youcubed.org/task/the-four-4s/ This is a well known task and it is a lot of fun. One class was given the task and told that the group that gets the highest integer wins a piece of candy for each person in the winning group. The second class was given the same task and not offered any incentive for the highest number.
What I noticed after we started was very interesting. The students who were enticed by a piece of candy dove into the assignment, as did the students that were not offered an incentive. What I noticed was that later in the task, students who were offered candy began looking around and comparing their progress.
In the candy class as soon as one group heard that another group was sufficiently ahead of them they were ready to throw up their hands in frustration and quit. It seems that having something to loose (even a trivial prize) made students significantly less willing to persevere through adversity.
The no candy class worked through the whole period. Although there was a definite competitive feeling to the no candy class, the students were willing to help other groups, willing to share ideas, and worked much harder on the task. It was such a joy to see this group work through struggles and observe how they collaborated. Trading ideas, bartering for different answers, and generally having fun with math knowing that nobody had anything to loose.
This was a real eye opener for me on many levels: students love having engaging math tasks, they enjoy getting to play with numbers, competition can actually hurt productivity, collaboration increases when there is nothing to loose, and although students love rewards they don't necessarily work harder when a reward is offered.
Obviously my findings are anecdotal, but I would love to research this more in depth and find out how to recreate the response of the no candy group on a daily basis. Ideas? Know of related research? Leave them in the comments or send me an email through the contact me page.