How we punish students with rewards

Many teachers are parents of school-aged children too; we’re the ones who embarrass our offspring simply by making vaguely informed enquiries at parents’ evening. (‘How can she work towards a target grade that is actually lower than her current performance grade?’ – just one example of many strictly off-limits squirm-inducers.)

But parenthood does provide us with fascinating insight – it’s often our own kids who stop us in our tracks; offer us a refreshingly common-sense perspective on aspects of our practice that we’ve stopped thinking critically about simply because they’ve been around for so long.

I asked mine about rewards. “They’re rubbish. If you get on with your work without any fuss you never get rewarded.” This injustice isn’t one my girls get too exorcised about though because they don’t actually want such goodies at all. “Praise from a teacher I respect means a lot to me. I really like that. House points? No thanks.” My eldest once begged for a day off school because she was at risk of having to accept a certificate for 100% attendance in assembly. “I’d rather die. It would be so embarrassing!” Oh, the irony in that.

Of course, elitists will attribute this modesty to the lack of a competitive ethos in our coasting comprehensives, or to a culture of low aspiration. But they would be missing the point. Most students love good grades, they relish positive feedback, they want to do well. But they see right through rewards.

I accept the argument that fairness doesn’t mean everyone has to be treated the same – have the same chance of being rewarded, in this example. As Jefferson rightly pointed out, ‘There’s nothing so unfair as the equal treatment of unequal people’. Some young people need more encouragement than others because they are disadvantaged. If a reward can draw in the disaffected, engage the damaged, help a child with ADHD make a super-human effort to sit still, in other words, level out the playing field just a little, then surely that’s a good thing. My daughters, complaining about fairness, just need to take a broader view.

In reality, however, rewards simply don’t have this kind of seductive power. Indeed, there’s a strong body of research, neglected by policymakers, which shows that rewards actually reduce motivation and therefore do all learners a disservice. In his iconoclastic ‘Punished by Rewards’, Alfie Kohn explains that when, in a study way back in the 1960s, children knew that they would be awarded a certificate for playing with ‘Magic Markers’, they became less interested than they were before the reward was offered.

According to Kohn, the total number of studies of this kind, showing how extrinsic controls actually reduce intrinsic interest, exceeds one hundred. For him,

 “This fact is so predictable that rewarding people might even be regarded a clever strategy for deliberately undermining interest in something.”

So why is this? Maybe it’s because what we do when we promise a reward for something is to convey the idea that the activity isn’t worth doing for its own sake. ‘Do this and you’ll get that’ automatically devalues the ‘this’ – whether it be composing a haiku, solving a maths problem or completing a homework task. Psychological reactance theory comes into play here too – the idea that when we feel our freedom to perform an action is threatened, we experience an unpleasant feeling of ‘reactance’ that makes us want to recoil from the situation. So when rewards are experienced as controlling, they become entirely counter-productive as incentives and adolescents, in particular, want nothing to do with them.

It’s worth pausing to question why it is that we feel compelled to dangle goodies in front of children when learning is in fact such an instinctive thing. As any parent will attest, toddlers ask endless questions, play with language and number, experiment, engage in all manner of cognitive activity in order to make sense of the world around them. As teachers, we have an ally in every curious child who walks into our classroom.

Why the bribes then? Well perhaps behaviourism – do this and you’ll get that – is so deeply rooted in our culture that it feels natural and inevitable and therefore goes unquestioned. As Kohn points out, rewards suffuse our lives – from performance-related pay in the workplace to pocket money and other treats for compliance in the home to a vast and growing array of rewards in schools – they are used to manipulate behaviour. It is the approach that teachers know best because it governed how we ourselves were managed.

Simply raising the stakes through ever more extravagant assembly draws to elicit  “a type of behaviour that the natural force field of the moment will not produce” (Kurt Lewin) is surely a mistake. What we need is a serious debate in our schools about why the ‘force field’ of the learning moment is not strong enough to engage so many young people. A preoccupation with rewards (and sanctions) stifles that debate; it’s a distraction.

We need to return to researchers such as William Glasser who argued in ‘Choice Theory in the Classroom’ that it’s because the traditional classroom environment deprives the adolescent of the need for power, or control, that we lose them as committed, independent learners. Whatever, it is clear that the single most important issue we should be addressing as educators is how to secure genuine learner buy-in, not on what prizes we need for the next raffle or whether to move from house points to Vivo Miles.

This is a re-blog post originally posted by Mary Meredith and published with kind permission.

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The Editorial Account of UKEdChat, managed by editor-in-chief Colin Hill, with support from Martin Burrett from the UKEd Magazine. Pedagogy, Resources, Community.

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