I’ve been reading Drive by Daniel Pink and it is amazing. (I’ll be posting more about this book later this week.) At the same time, I’m receiving a variety of catalogs in the mail in anticipation for back to school. On the one hand I am learning about intrinsic motivation: the idea that we have an innate tendency to be challenged and to learn. On the other hand I am intrigued by the colorful little fun things things I see on the pages of the catalog. I want to purchase these little toys as rewards and incentives for my students.
And so I am faced with this interesting dilemma. Will fun, but essentially useless toys be worth the purchase? Should I go down that road this year? Or go totally Pink and rethink rewards altogether?
A few months back, I took a class as part of my Arts, Leadership and Learning CAGS degree program through Plymouth State University and my professor, Bethany Nelson warned us against what I’ll call The Seal Effect. The idea is that if you want a seal to do a trick, entice it with a fish. The seal will know it’s coming and do whatever you want. She’d clap her hands together in front of her and move her neck out and up as if catching fish whenever someone would mention rewards. It was corny and, I’ll admit I rolled my eyes the first time, but it did get me thinking. When we entice kids with rewards, what is it really doing? Is it telling them that for everything you do right, you’re going to get a treat? “What a treat? Do what I ask.”
And then there is the reward itself. My friend and colleague, Beth Cavalier and I have had this conversation a few times about our kids (both our students and our children.) Her main concern is that when we give these little rewards, students disregard them. It’s just another toy to marvel at for one moment and lose the next – no biggie. In other words, they have no real value. I liken it to the end of the year awards where everyone gets one and no one feels special for what they have truly accomplished.
One year, in high school at the end of a color guard season, our team ALL received, not just the same award, but we each got a trophy that stated, “Most Improved, Best Performance, Greatest Effort.” Are you kidding me? I got the first trophy because I was the captain and as soon as I saw we all got the same, my trophy meant absolutely NOTHING! You can’t kid me!
I realize there are no absolutes and I understand that some students will treasure the things they have received and hopefully earned as a reward. But I really believe there is something to this intrinsic motivation and it could hold a huge key to the long lasting motivation of my students.
I would love to hear your opinions on rewards and am looking forward to writing more on this topic focusing more on Pink’s ideas for Thursday. Please add your comments!
I remember my speech therapy training many, many years ago, where I had to use M&Ms to elicit the correct sound. I found that strange that I was using food, however it worked. As a college student, I used food as a reinforcer but never continued that practice when I actually got a “real job”. Using a verbal reward worked just as well.
Fast forward … when my daughter attended elememntary school, she loved to read. She enjoyed the school wide program, Read Across America. As she completed her trek quickly across America, my daughter received a medal. She loved that so much, she completed 3 rounds and received 3 medals. The next year she was soooooooooo excited to start the trek reading across American and wanted to go for 4 medals. The powers that be decided that the students would receive one medal and something special if you completed more than 1 journey around America at the end of the time limit and not along the way. My daughter was not happy but completed several rounds. As she anticipated receiving her medals and special surprise, the powers that be decided to have a ceremony for parents and friends ANDDDDDDDDDDDDDD your child would only receive 1 medal (to save money). That was disappointing to my daughter. So at the ceremony she received her medal with a group of students and then did not receive additional medals. However, she was called in front of the crowd to receive an applause for her additional treks across America. I guess that was the special reward. My daughter is shy, very shy. She did not want to receive anything in front of a crowd. She enjoyed reading, getting her medal quietly and continuing on. The next year, my daughter continued to read but did not want to be part of the program. She did not want to receive applause in front of a large group of people.
Rewards get people to do things and sometimes just completing something on your own is satisfaction enough.
Fast forward again… I learned quickly that some children are not interested in little trinkets but now a days want something big. Even playing a simple bingo game, students are shocked when receiving a little gift. They think a prize maybe a video game or money. I try and instill in my students that a good word, a smile, and accomplishing the task and the feeling and excitement you get from completing the activity should be your reward. There is a time and place for rewards. In the real world, you don’t receive a prize for all your accomplishments. We accomplish a lot through out the day, but there isn’t someone standing there passing out something tangible. sometimes children expect something and are disappointed when they don’t receive a reward. As I said earlier there is a time and place for rewards.
I don’t give rewards in my classroom. I have over 400 kids. Buying little rewards would put me in the poor house. Besides, I don’t believe in motivating kids by giving them treats or toys… or even stickers. I’ve observed classes where there were rewards systems, and the focus always ends up on the reward and nothing else. Kids would walk into the classroom and ask who would get the reward, what would they get, what happened if they didn’t like the reward, etc. Too much!
My students work in my classroom because I expect them to do so. When someone needs extra motivation, we talk about it… even the youngest students! I’m not going to say that everyone works their hardest 100% of the time, but I can tell you that no one comes in asking who is going to win the candy today. In my opinion, the reward is in the learning. Obviously, most kids aren’t going to think of that as a reward… so it’s my job to make sure they are engaged and enjoying what they do. When it’s time for them to leave my class and they’re disappointed that their time is up, then I know they are learning about their own motivation and enjoying their learning.
Hey Elizabeth! Thanks for this post. I just finished Drive myself, and I did so while I was observing a remarkable two-week institute for DC teachers courtesy of Center for Inspired Teaching (obviously, a group of kindred spirits).
They were doing some powerful work with the teachers around this issue, and I wrote up my observations in a recent post. Check it out at http://www.samchaltain.com/using-rewards-in-the-classroom-short-term-crutch-or-long-term-strategy and see what you think.
Please do not use rewards in your classroom. For stellar reading pick up Alfie Kohn’s book “Punished by Rewards” and see the research. You are indeed training children to do something to get a reward, not for the experience in reading or learning. You can still have class parties but do them impromptu rather than something they earn or can have taken away. Also, rewards can pit students against each other in that some will get many; others will get few. Through rewards we teach children that if you do this, you will get this, not “if you do this; you will learn this.”
Thank you so much everyone for these great comments and prompts for discussion!
Even though I call this post “Reward Not!” I am torn. It can be true that that incentives are easy, and that’s part of why we use them. There is also the problem of immediate results and that’s what incentives give sometimes – a quick fix. But that is not what we are truly after, right?? What we WANT are self motivated learners. And bottom line: rewards and incentives such as these do not give us that result.
As I read through your comments, it is helping me to really look at my own teaching and rethink the incentives I do give (and I don’t think I really do that much). But it is a frame of mind that can be really carried into your teaching.
Something Sam touched upon in his post which I think is important for teachers to remember as they make the transition from a sticker infested classroom to a room of intrinsically motivated learners is this quote from a presenter, Jenna:
“This does not mean we’re discounting celebrations in the classroom,” she concluded. “We are saying that a child promised a treat for learning has been given every reason to stop doing so as soon as the reward goes away.”
Again, thanks for your stories. They are really thought provoking. Let’s continue this discussion!
The motivational value of “stuff” pretty much depends on the individual. Some will work for a prize, others won’t even if the prize is something they’d like to have.
I think learning is a bit like going on an exercise program. If when you’re ready to give up somebody says, “You’re looking good,” that serendipitious comment is a reward that reminds you that you are making progress.
As a college writing instructor, I would sometimes staple a penny lollipop on a paper, but for a student who was making progress at something that was not yet impacting his/her grade. (You can spend a lot of time practicing writing before the results show up.) I was always amused at how pleased students were with such a trivial physical reward for a huge amount of intellectual effort. I don’t think it had anything to do with the lollipop. That was just the symbol that somebody had noticed the students’ effort.
The conversation continues…. please read my newest post on the subject “Rewards and Incentives”