Why I don’t believe in putting marbles into jars

Anna Palmer was not happy with my recent review of Marble Jar. She wrote a rebuttal to the review here and it led me to ponder the underlying reason for my dissatisfaction with it.

In my review I focused on the technical aspects – for an app that advertises itself as being iPad ready it really isn’t though I imagine it works as it should on the iPhone – and touched on its added value as an app, which I felt was small as it doesn’t do anything a real container and marbles can do.

The more Anna tries to show me workarounds for the technical difficulties via blog comments and the more she tries to point me towards others who gave her positive feedback about Marble Jar on twitter, the more I feel as if I am being told – look, you made a mistake with your review. See, other people like it! The way I see it, it’s ok for me to not like the app and it’s ok for others to like it. A review is based on a variety of things, a big one being opinion.

Let me give you some background as to how I formed my opinion – the underlying reasons for my dissatisfaction with Marble Jar. Fundamentally, they point towards my essential beliefs to do with teaching and learning: the appropriate use of technology to enhance learning and the fostering of logical consequences rather than reward systems.

The appropriate use of technology to enhance learning
What do I mean by that? Some of the answer touches on a recent question I posed around using technology with children. In that post, I described how unsettled I was by my young son’s vacant gaze as he stared at a slide show in a waiting room. I was reminded of that in a comment to my review of Marble Jar, “As we know, for better or worse, kids love the screen.” If the only reason we are using something is due to its technological novelty it will soon lose its glamour. I still do not see how tapping virtual marbles into a jar on a screen can enhance learning about goal setting. As I conclude in my post (and comments) about children and tech, it is essential for me to ensure that technology is used purposefully, mindfully, and not merely for the wow factor. For me, technology is about making connections in ways that we otherwise can not. This app simply doesn’t do that.

The use of logical consequences and external reward systems

At the heart of this app is the setting of goals and the actions that are necessary to achieve the goals: essentially a behaviour modification program based on action and reward – an example given on the app’s website is if I brush my teeth x amount of times I will be able to go on a camping trip. This is no different than using real jars of marbles (or stickers on a chart or any other tracking system) in which I don’t believe, either. Why does a child have to perform unrelated activities in order to earn the right to go camping(or whatever their goal is)? And what does marbles (or stickers) have to do with it? The consequence of brushing your teeth is that you’ll have good oral hygiene and has nothing to do with camping. These are not logical consequences and don’t jive with my belief system around that. Motivation theories all point towards the concept that in order for real change to happen motivation needs to be intrinsic – coming from inside. When we try to get people (kids) to do certain actions while holding an unrelated goal as a carrot, we are more often than not either a) disappointed that the child gave up before achieving their goal and/or b) not teaching anything transferable about motivating oneself to achieve anything. Indeed, the child is working for the reward and each subsequent reward often needs to be bigger and better for the child not to get tired of it. Again, no logical connection between the what (brushing the teeth) and the why (going camping), and certainly not the how of it all (putting virtual marbles into a virtual jar).

Having written all of this I know that there are many people who do believe in the use of external reward systems to get all kinds of things done. For them, this app may very likely be useful. For me, based on my beliefs around learning, it isn’t.

I’d love to hear what others think about this!


  • Ooh, yay, I was hoping for a whole blog post on the topic! :-)

  • Tracy says:

    Angela, I didn’t realize that I never wrote about how I deal with motivation and management in my classroom. I have a feeling that my answer will warrant more than a comment – and more time than my tired brain can handle right now! It’s an excellent idea for my next post though. Stay tuned :)

    On another note, I like how you framed our conversation here. It was becoming very 2-sided and yes, there is room for more than one way to help children be happy, well -adjusted, and all those other qualities you mentioned. For the most part, when it comes down to it, as long as we are passionate about the big ideas around raising our children (and with this I mean students as well) they will become passionate learners as well.

    Thanks, Angela :)

  • This is a really interesting conversation. Tracy, do you/have you used any sort of whole class reward system when you taught elementary school? Did you use any extrinsic rewards in the classroom at all? I’ve been a long time reader (and fan) of your blog but can’t recall any posts on this topic…would love to hear more on your perspective and how it plays out practically in terms of classroom management.

    Anna, I think Tracy’s statement that the app is not useful for her–and that’s OKAY–is a really important point. I feel the pain in your blog post, as you’ve poured your heart and soul (and apparently money!) into this app. You believe it’s something of incredible value and want everyone to see that, too. I can totally relate, as that’s how I feel about my website and books. It’s been a tough road learning that some people will disagree with my fundamental philosophy and approach even though I KNOW it works. It’s been very…what’s the word, healing? comforting?…to remind myself that those that disagree are not necessarily ill-informed or not seeing the big picture. They are actually right, just like I am, because there isn’t one “correct” approach to teaching or parenting or life, for that matter. I think that both your approach to parenting AND Tracy’s can help children become happy, well-adjusted, responsible, independent, and all those other qualities we’re ALL aiming for. I just wanted to share that with you as a word of encouragement. Keep spreading the word about your app, and the people who find it valuable will embrace it and spread the word. You are very passionate about a great idea, so I know there is more success ahead for you. :-)

  • Tracy says:

    Hi Anna,

    It’s nice to see that you are so passionate about your product!

    Yes, scaffolding is an important element when learning new skills and I’m glad the marble jar has worked for you in this manner. It is not for me at a basic level to do with how I view learning, as I explained in the post. I’m not sure how else to say it than how I have already stated it – I do not find value in placing marbles in jars, in particular virtual ones!

    However you frame it, requiring activities to go on a camping trip – whether within the theme of environmentalism or not is action / reward behaviour that is not based in logical consequences. It would make much more sense for me to work on camping skills – pitching a tent, gathering kindling, fire safety, etc… before going camping. These would be things I’d do with my child or students as activities on their own that make sense – they are skills that are needed to go camping – and not attached to a gathering of marbles. There is no relationship between the 2 activities for me. I do not need a marble jar to help me stop and notice the children in my family or classroom. I do not want the benefit of children’s actions tied to a marble and a jar, I’d rather it be tied to our relationship.

    Again – for people who are proponents of behaviour / reward, this app can be useful. For me, it’s not. And again, I think that is ok.

    Thanks for pushing the conversation, Anna!

  • Anna Palmer says:

    Thank you for pointing out my need to update me website. I completely agree that “brushing teeth leads to camping” is a behavioral approach where the “reward” is divorced from the actions. One of the focuses of Parenting on Track and the Marble Jar app is allowing natural consequences to help with learning. In our real camping trip jar (which is called happy earth) we practice environmentalism, buying used, composting, turning off electricity, and picking up litter. When our jar is full we will go on a camping trip. The celebration of being closer to the earth after practicing caring for it is closely related.

    Other examples include our bedtime routine jar which does include teethbrushing, clothes in hamper etc, and when the jar is full we end with stories and back rubs. That is a daily use jar…although as expected it has been phased out in our house. If you repeat things often enough you can remove the scaffolding and the kids will work through it on their own.

    The primary benefit of the app is the ability for parents and kids to discuss and decide what matters to them, a happy earth, stories at bedtime, getting out of the house in the morning. Break down what it looks like, and then build the jar together. After the jar is built kids from 4 up can use it independently, getting parents out of the chain of nagging and prodding, and allowing the space everyone needs to become their best selves. Perhaps a little lofty, but the potential is there for it to be much more than a carrot or a stick.

    Here is what my parenting expert has to say:

    I will update that website today or tomorrow. I am very glad you used that example because I see that it does not represent the app the way I want to.

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