Using Rewards in the Classroom: Short-Term Crutch or Long-Term Strategy?

Today is the last day of Center for Inspired Teaching’s two-week Institute, and as the rest of the country talks about the merits and shortcomings of the Obama administration’s education plan – particularly its belief that external systems of accountability and extrinsic motivators like performance pay are an essential ingredient in reforming public education – I’m watching the same debate unfold here, on the ground, as a small group of DC teachers prepares for the coming school year.

The debate was seeded by the Institute’s two lead facilitators, Aleta Margolis and Jenna Fournel, who began one morning by asking teachers to place themselves along a continuum – in the form of a blue line that stretched from one side of the room to the other, and identified strongly agree and strongly disagree as the two poles. “I’m going to read off some prompts,” Jenna explained, “and when I do please place yourself along the continuum using your two feet.”

Before the exercise began, Jenna provided two definitions – tangible rewards (“By this we mean things like stickers, free time, extra privileges, and the like.), and punishment (“By which we mean the loss or denial or something of value.”)

  • It is more effective to reward students for good behavior than to punish them for bad behavior.
  • Tangible rewards make school more interesting for students.
  • Tangible rewards are effective teaching tools.
  • Tangible rewards motivate students to work harder.
  • Tangible rewards motivate students to behave better.
  • Tangible rewards are bribes.
  • I am motivated professionally by tangible rewards.
  • I am motivated personally by tangible rewards.
  • When a teacher offers a tangible reward for completing schoolwork the teacher is sending the message that the work itself is not important.
  • When a teacher offers a tangible reward the teacher is sending the message that doing the right thing is valuable.
  • Tangible rewards are copouts for teachers because teachers can offer rewards instead of making the curriculum interesting.

After everyone had had a chance to plot his or her own thinking on the subject, Jenna explained what was coming next: a good old-fashioned debate. “And I invite you to choose the side you don’t personally agree with,” she added. “Let’s imagine we’re creating our own new school in DC. And you the teachers must be the ones to decide whether or not we use extrinsic rewards.”

After 20 minutes of time to prepare their arguments and a ceremonial coin flip, the group in charge of arguing against tangible rewards went first:

“We’d like to start with quote from Alfie Kohn,” the group spokesperson began. “’At least two dozen studies have shown that people expecting to receive a reward for a task do not perform as well as someone expecting nothing.’”

“The first thing we need to do is decide what we’re trying to do? Our argument is that there is no tangible long-term benefit to using tangible rewards. It’s a short-term fix. Often rewards are not for the kids’ benefit, but for our own. It’s about control, and making our jobs easier. A large part of why teachers use tangible rewards is because they lack the skills to identify good alternatives. Additionally, tangible rewards can distract from the love of learning. Every time you give a tangible reward, you’re indirectly punishing all students who don’t receive them.

“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.”

Applause broke out in the room, a short shuffling of papers followed, and then group two took the stage.

“I would challenge you by saying that the adults referred to in your argument have chosen a profession where they’re motivated to help children. It’s vital we assist adults in being successful. We can’t only focus on kids who already have intrinsic motivation. If there are twenty kids and some of them would benefit from extrinsic motivations, we shouldn’t deny those kids the chance to become more engaged. We need to have all the tools for people in order to facilitate inclusion. There are different levels of rewards, and our goal must be to try and bring kids to a different level of functioning. We also believe rewards can trigger behavior. The first day children may need something that can feel and touch that makes them feel good. That initial feeling can then snowball in a positive way. It’s showing that we value them and their families, and are preparing them to be successful in the real world they will enter when they graduate.”

As the debate concluded (not surprisingly, no winner was named), it was clear to me that this was an issue over which there was little consensus. For some, the power of extrinsic rewards could not be denied. They have seen the changes in kids that have struggled for so long. For others, the use of tangible rewards is a crutch that only delays the deeper transformation that a powerful learning environment tries to surface.

Over lunch that day, I continued the conversation under umbrellas and a round table on the school’s rooftop balcony. “I just finished my third year teaching,” said one young woman named Heather, “and the way I motivate kids is through extrinsic awards. It’s the easiest thing to do when classroom behavior is a challenge.”

Another young woman named Lee agrees. “When you’re in a challenging environment, and you don’t have the support to create a more holistic learning environment that would support an intrinsic classroom. I feel like this is a big personal challenge, too, as a novice teacher. I‘m not sure I’m capable yet of being intentional enough day after day to provide a more purely intrinsic learning experience for my kids.”

Lee’s admission prompted another teacher at the table, a woman named Michelle, to join in. “I’ve used extrinsic awards, but not consistently. What ends up happening as a result is I have kids occasionally ask me if they’re getting a reward for what they’re doing. So I’m wondering how my inconsistency has impacted them when it comes to motivation overall. And whether or not my use of rewards has delayed their own deeper appreciation for the work they do.”

Ben, the lone male participant in the Institute, talked about the “token economy” of extrinsic awards his school uses. “I don’t really use them in my own class, but I think it’s most useful, and most used, in the non-classroom setting. In the cafeteria, for example, where the adults are less likely to know the kids they’re supervising, I think it’s extremely useful. And I’ve seen in my own kids how motivated some of them can become when they have something concrete to strive for. But I feel torn.”

What do YOU think? Are there some occasions where the use of extrinsic motivators is a sound teaching and behavioral strategy? Or must we as educators challenge ourselves to focus exclusively on building the capacity for intrinsic motivation?

Categories: Learning, Teacher Quality

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  1. Posted July 31, 2010 at 12:26 pm | Permalink


    Great topic. In fact, motivation is THE topic if you think about it. After all, we can’t FORCE kids do anything. So everything they do, they have to choose to do on their own based on their own internal compass.

    The best model for motivation these days is probably Deci & Ryan’s “Self-Determination Theory” (SDT). You probably already know about it because I think you’ve mentioned reading “Drive” by Daniel Pink where it is featured.

    At Teaching That Makes Sense, we have created an assessment system—called “the 3P system”—based on SDT. It works fantastically well for both teachers and students. The system has the effect of building intrinsic motivational capacity in children over time. Works for adults in the workplace, too.

    I think this is the most important point to be stressed: the only motivation that transfers from one context to another is intrinsic. If I set up external motivations, even if they work in my classroom, how will that help kids in all their other classrooms? Or in life? The motivators, and their consequent rewards and punishments, will all be different, and the students will be forced to learn a new system all over again.

    I have found—and this is consistent with D&R—that if I create and maintain a solid foundational system for building intrinsic motivation, then I can use external motivators in that context, on occasion and with care, and not have a problem. Motivation is learnable and teachable. Intrinsic motivation is more stable because it is within the learner’s sphere of control. Layering external motivators on top is not a big deal and often happens naturally anyway. As with so many of our typical “either-or” discussions in education, the right answer here is “and”. Internal first, external second. Or internal on the bottom, as a foundation, external on the top as an ornamentation.

    The problem with “external-only” reward-punishment systems is two-fold:

    1. PREE. Partial Reinforcement Extinction Effect means that over time the subject will need more of the motivator to perform at the same level. Once kids get used to getting $1 for an “A” from their parents, they want $5. And it really never stops. The trick, as any experimental psych student knows is to vary the reinforcement schedule to the point where it becomes random and therefore unpredictable by the subject—some “A’s” get $0, some get $10, and the kid never knows which is which until the reward either materializes or it doesn’t. This works perfectly with non-self-aware animals like lab rats. Not so good with humans, however, as they come to realize that “the universe is random” so why bother trying at all. Many scientists, most notably Martin Seligman, have shown that his can lead to…

    2. LEARNED HELPLESSNESS. If I’m a reward-driven being with little or no internal motivational capacity, and I realize that rewards are doled out randomly, a weird thing happens: I lose my sense of control or agency. Human beings love control. We really need to be able to predict with reasonable certainty what is going to happen to us. Randomized reinforcement schedules randomize our world. This makes us tired, cranky, dispassionate, bitter, cynical, and in the end, depressed.

    Now, kids experience random treatment—and outright manipulation—every year they are in school by almost every teacher they have and by their parents at home as well. This is what leads to so much alienation and low motivation in our kids, something that typically begins to show up around fourth grade, right when kids’ moral development is moving them out of the “black and white” stage into the “shades of gray” stage. Essentially, the more “moral” a kid becomes, the more demoralized they get about school and possibly about family life as well.

    This is just one of many reasons kids of that tweens and teens cling so hard and fast to friendships. Friends are the most constant elements of their universe. It’s also why so many kids who kill themselves do so out of the despair of being ostracized from the community. This is why it’s so hard to be different at school when you hit your teens. At the very point in your life when you are the most emotionally fragile, your friends are the Rock of Gibraltar that maintains your sanity and even your self-esteem. Every kid needs a piece of the rock!

    So where’s the safety net here? Intrinsic motivation. Sometimes life is very lonely. What gets us out of bed in the morning and out to do our work in the world when there are no positive rewards headed our way? Intrinsic motivation. If kids aren’t self-motivated, they are highly vulnerable to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Since school is a controlled environment, we have some ability to shape it in positive ways for kids. Perhaps the best way to shape it is as an “intrinsic motivation zone.”

    If we concentrate on building an intrinsic motivational foundation, through something like Deci & Ryan’s work, and using structures in the classroom that reinforce these models, like our 3P assessment system, then kids have more control over not only their results but their emotional reactions to them as well. This foundation allows them to weather the randomized storm of life’s unfairnesses. It also builds self-discipline, self-esteem, impulse control, delayed gratification, all those good indicators of a successful and fulfilling future.

    Life really is random when it comes to external rewards. We can get jobs that may seem more predictable than others, but we’ve all seen in the last few years that that’s no guarantee. Everyone has a bad year. Everyone has a bad boss. And this says nothing of the random roller coaster ride that is family life. Or the challenges of managing your health and well-being as you age, or that of your children as they grow.

    External motivators mark the territory of the external world. The trick is learning to deal with this and even to exploit it to one’s advantage. This can only be accomplished through internal self-mastery which can only be built effectively if one has a lot of good explicit instruction in the development of self-motivation.

    You’ll note that this is probably what your parents did for you, and what most good parents do. They “temper” us to the realities of the world not through manipulation but by letting us experience greater and greater degrees of autonomy within the sphere of their protection. This lets us use our internal “spidey senses” to suss out the world and take a few risks without really risking much at all. Our parents, if they’re smart, back off ever so slightly as we get older and begin to display better judgment. In the classroom, the technical term for this is “gradual release of responsibility”; we move, through the year, from a primarily teacher-controlled community on Day One to a primarily student-controlled community on Day 180. This gives us “responsibility training” as we grow, much of which comes in the form of reasonable reminders (not rewards or punishments) to switch on our internal motivator and “do the right thing” not because it will get us greater extern rewards but because it’s just the right thing to do—in other words, a completely internal construct.

    To conclude, then, any teacher who doesn’t base his or her classroom on a foundational system that builds intrinsic motivation is really just cementing within his or her kids the unpleasant truth that life is not fair. One might say, “Well, then, I”m just preparing kids for life!” To which I often offer this thought experiment:

    We all know kids are going to get their hearts broken in their first relationships. Should we break their hearts now so they can be better prepared? We all know virtually every human being breaks a bone at some point in his or her life. Should we break our kids’ arms or just their pinky fingers so they’ll learn how to handle it? If you knew there was going to be famine next year, would you start starving your children today? Or would it be better to fatten them up with the healthiest foods, and strengthen their minds to be more disciplined, so that when the tough times came they had the emotional self-mastery to handle going to bed hungry once in a while, and the physical body mass to live through the ordeal?

    The world is a very cruel place largely because it offers us random external motivators. School doesn’t need to be that way, too. In fact, as Neil Postman would point out, school needs to be homeostatic, it needs to balance the non-school forces in a kids’ life. School needs to prepare kids for the world. But we don’t prepare them for it by recreating it, in all its unfairness, 180 times a year, from kindergarten through 12th grade. That’s not preparation, that’s abuse.

    External motivators are inevitable. They’re in the atmosphere. So the only compassionate and logical choice we have as teachers is to provide systems for developing internal motivational capacity in our kids. This is what allows them to bring choice and discipline to their mastery of the world.

    You’ll note as well, from your work with democratic organizations, that democracy is predicated on individual agency, and that individual agency, or voice as you so eloquently refer to it, is only available, in all its fullness, to people who are fortunate enough to have developed strong internal motivation systems. In your work, especially in the corporate world, I’m sure you talk a lot about autonomy and voice. These ideas are meaningless to people who are moved only by the push and pull of external forces. External reward and punishment systems just string the puppets; they are the tools of totalitarians. Internal motivation starts the revolution and sets the people free.

    Of course, this is exactly why we don’t use internal motivation systems in school. We’re afraid of the kids. We know we don’t give them a great experience. And we’re afraid that if we don’t keep control over them, we’ll lose control—over the class or the school or even the entire community. Our fear inspires us to be autocrats and fascists. We transfer our fear to our children through rules, roles, rewards, and punishments. We cultivate just a little randomness to keep kids in our grip. And then we send them on to the next person who does pretty much the same thing. These kids grow up to be workers who are scared of their bosses, bosses who intimidate their workers, and parents who use the very same techniques to control their children. Helping kids develop intrinsic motivation can break the cycle.

    Remaking the culture of school through intrinsic motivation systems would have extraordinarily positive consequences for kids and for democratic communities. This is very hard to accomplish for a single teacher on his or her own. But when our group has put a system in place across several classrooms, it works very well and is, to some extent, self-reinforcing as kids move from teacher to teacher.

    Like so many things, righting an upside down world takes a lot of teamwork. But in this particular case, I can’t think of anything more fundamental to success or more worth working for.

    Great topic!

    Steve Peha

  2. Maggie
    Posted August 1, 2010 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

    An interesting study on the topic was conducted at an Ohio elementary school by Eric Bettinger. The study is called “Paying to Learn: The Effect of Financial Incentives on Elementary School Test Scores.” The study demonstrates the short-term effectiveness of external rewards on learning outcomes, and discusses the long-term limitations.

  3. Debbie Tanner
    Posted August 10, 2010 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    I work in a Montessori school where extrinsic rewards are NOT part of the philosophy. I only recently came to Montessori from 20+ in a traditional setting. What I found is that the extrinsic rewards work for a few kids but the intrinsic rewards work a lot better. If the kids are vested in the work they are doing, if they see a point to what they are doing, not just because someone said so, you’ll have better long term results both academically and behaviorally. However, the teacher has to believe that it will work and then work to make it happen. It’s a lot easier to give a sticker or a change a color than to sit down and talk to the kids about what’s working and what’s not working. Unfortunately, in our days of highly structured curriculum and data analysis, the time for discussion is limited and if administrators don’t understand the importance of building classroom community it’s a lot harder to work on intrinsic rewards.

  4. Posted August 11, 2010 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    Sam, This is a great post! Thanks for linking it to mine
    Even though I called it “Reward Not!” I am torn just as Ben is. I really respect Debbie’s perspective on things as she works in a Montessori school. It is too true 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.

    The other thing you touched upon 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 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.”

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