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

Learning, Teacher Quality

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?