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Rethinking Rewards and Incentives

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In my first two years as a classroom teacher, I used an incentive system to try and motivate and manage students. At each cluster of four student desks, there was a plastic dish. When groups were working well, paying attention, acting kindly, etc., I would throw a couple of cardboard discs into the dish. If a group was off-task, if a student didn’t bring in their homework, if students were being disruptive, I would remove one. When a group of students reached 75 discs, I would take them out for lunch at the pizzeria located next to the school. Though many students were initially excited about the system and loved going out to lunch, the system feel apart after a while. Students accused each other of stealing discs, reacted with fear when I walked nearby (“Shh! He’s coming!” they would whisper.), and accused me of not noticing them enough when they did something well (“Hey, Mr. A! We were just reading quietly—don’t we get some discs?!”).

Like many educators, I have struggled with the use of rewards. I used them in various forms as a classroom teacher (in addition to the example above), saw them used in many ways throughout the schools in which I taught, and have seen many more examples in schools across the country as a consultant: sticker charts, traffic light and clothespin boards, the promise of extra recess, and letter grades are just a few.

I have explored numerous resources (articles, books, videos, and more) and engaged in countless discussions with teachers, administrators, parents, and others about the use of rewards and have come to the conclusion that rewards do more harm than good. They tend to encourage adult-pleasing and compliance over engagement or ethical thinking. They diminish intrinsic drive and can hook kids into feeling as though they should only work for rewards, prizes, or praise. They also tend to discourage the very kids they’re really targeted to help—the ones who struggle with the skills needed to be successful—the ones who quickly give up on (and resent) incentive systems once they realize they can’t be successful.

I have been collecting resources to help facilitate thinking about rewards and incentive systems (including the use of manipulative praise). Here are a few of my favorites:

Videos:

Drive: Best-selling author Dan Pink talks about the where true motivation comes from and highlights some of the research behind why incentive systems do more harm than good. Illustrated by a dry-erase animator, this talk is lively and highly engaging!

Kids Do Well if They Can: Ross Greene, author of The Explosive Child, explains his guiding philosophy, “kids do well if they can,” which, in turn, explains why rewards, incentives, and punishments rarely work.

Schrute Bucks: What would it look like if school-like incentive systems were used in a business setting? Check out this hysterical clip from The Office.

Alfie Talks with Oprah: An oldie but a goodie, in this video, Alfie Kohn talks with Oprah (and some teachers and parents) about why rewards diminish intrinsic motivation and what we should do instead.

Articles:

“Six Reasons Rewards Don’t Work,” by Dr. Richard Curwin: A clear and compelling case for some of the damages done through rewards.

“Powerful Words,” by Gail Zimmerman: A Teacher changes her language to move away from manipulative praise and toward more authentic reinforcement.

“The Risks of Rewards,” by Alfie Kohn: Alfie discusses how rewards are closely related to punishments and threats and often yield similar results.

There are many ways you might explore these (and other) resources. Here are a few suggestions:

  • On your own: Create a simple three-columned chart for note-taking. Title the chart “Pros and Cons of Rewards.” Title the first column “pros,” the second one “cons,” and the third one “questions.” As you read articles and watch videos, jot down notes to help you process your thinking.
  • With a small group: Each person can choose one article to read and/or one video to watch. Each person takes notes in a T-chart. The left column can be titled “from the video/article” and the right column can be “thoughts and opinions.” When everyone is ready, share first “from the article/video” and then “thoughts and opinions” to lead into an open discussion.
  • At a staff meeting: Watch one video or read one article as a whole group. In small groups (3-5 per group), discuss some of the key points from the video/article and some thoughts and opinions. Have one person in each group briefly summarize the small-group discussion for the whole group.

For other resources to help you explore this topic, check out two Pinterest boards that I have been working on: Rethinking Rewards and Effective Teacher Language.

  • Mike Anderson

    Mike Anderson is an education consultant, award-winning teacher, and author of many books including The Well-Balanced Teacher, The First Six Weeks of School, The Research-Ready Classroom, and Learning to Choose, Choosing to Learn. Learn more about Mike and his work or invite him to work with your school or district through his website: www.leadinggreatlearning.com. Connect with Mike on Twitter: @balancedteacher.

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    Mike Anderson
    Leading Great Learning
    Durham, NH
    Phone: +1 413.658.7907
    leadinggreatlearning.com
    mike@leadinggreatlearning.com

    Leading Great Learning

    Mike Anderson is an energetic, experienced, and highly sought-after educational consultant who helps facilitate great learning in schools all over the United States and beyond. He has over twenty years of experience as a teacher, consultant, presenter, and developer and has authored many books and articles about great teaching and learning.