Be the change, rewards

Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones and Rewards Will Always Hurt You – Confessions of a Former Rewards Addict

This post is, was, and will be inspired by this post written by George Couros “The Impact of Awards

I admit it.  Gold stars, super duper stickers, sticks, names on the board; I have done it all.  And when one reward system failed, another one took over.  Never one to sit and reflect that perhaps it was the system that was faulty and not just that the students grew tired of it.  After all, that carrot at the end of the stck was essential to my teaching success.  Those stickers meant I cared.  That Awesome board where A+ work was proudly displayed gave students something to strive for.  That certificate if you got an A on your math test meant that you were smart and that other students should look up to you.  Right?  Wrong again.

Oh, I thought I was clever.  I thought I knew how to motivate students and after all, what could a little reward do that would possibly hurt the child?  Well, after reading Alfie Kohn’s book “Punished by Rewards,” I realize just how wrong I have been.  Those papers on the awesome board did nothing to improve unity in my room.  Instead they acted as the great divide, highlighting the students that could from those that could not.  Those stickers I doled out for anything above 90%; not a cheerful way to celebrate achievement, but rather a glaring marker showing which students did the best in the room.  Those great “you did it” award certificates stapled to their math tests, not great posters of pride but instantaneous feedback on where a students falls within the grade hierarchy.  And yes, the students knew exactly where they fell within the classroom.

So this year I am throwing it all out.  Well, most of it anyway, I do like those stickers and will use them for good rather than evil.  And I am petrified.  After all, this is how I was taught to teach.  If a student does something good they should be rewarded and nothing says “Great job! I can tell you worked so hard” better than a smiley face sticker.  Wrong again.  A smiley face sticker says; “If you work hard, you will get a smiley face sticker.”  And when in life does that ever happen?  This year, I plan on talking to my students even more.  Telling them what was great, asking them what they thought was great and then peeling apart things that didn’t quite get there and figure out what went wrong.  We shall learn from our supposed mistakes, those will be our rewards.

So while I am excited for this new no-reward agenda, I do shudder a little bit at the implication it has.  No longer will I be the cool teacher with the Awesome board, the one you get to have pizza with if your stick doesn’t get moved, the one that doles out classroom parties as if they were clean socks.  Instead, I will be the one that shouts the praise the loudest to every kid.  The one that talks to all my students and highlights all the things they did right.  The one that creates more work for herself because talking rather than just placing a sticker takes more time, more effort, more thought.  And I can’t wait.  Will you join me?

16 thoughts on “Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones and Rewards Will Always Hurt You – Confessions of a Former Rewards Addict”

  1. I'm joining you my friend. I think you have the right idea. Working for stickers and certificates is pointless. Working for satisfaction is what we're going for.So although I've organized all my stickers into a tidy binder this year, I plan to have set reasons when a child will be able to choose one – but not in lieu of my words. Praise is going to be the motivator in my room, and stickers can be little trinkets to supplement it.

  2. Thanks for your mention 🙂 I really appreciate it.Here is how I see it when dealing with kids. I am selfish. I feel so great when I get to talk to kid and show how much I appreciate them. I usually get so much out of the interaction at that moment and in the long term. It is great to show you care about people because that is something that is so lasting. Will you have made a difference because you gave them a certificate at the end of the year or because you connected with them?How many stories about our favourite teachers start with, "I remember how that teacher use to give me so many awards." I have never heard one like that.You are right about the "sticker" rewards. Where is the connection? Do you think this will motivate grade 12 students? I know that if you learn about then and show interest in what they do, this is an effective teaching practice through all grades. Good teaching is good teaching, no matter what you do.Thanks for your thoughts on this 🙂

  3. I stepped away from reward systems a few years ago, and I agree with all of your reasons for changing. I have to admit though, part of my change was selfish. I had trouble keeping up with the record keeping involved! I found myself trying to justify (to me and my students) why one student earned a reward and another did not. The kids became obsessed with doing the right thing to earn the prize rather than doing the right thing because it was the right thing to do. I worried that my students would miss the rewards, especially because other teachers on my team have their students earn pretend money which is later used to "buy" prizes.(A nightmare with record keeping as far as I am concerned!)So far my kids have been just fine with this no rewards system. Good for you for trying something new, and I hope you are as happy with the change as I have been!

  4. I'm also joining you Pernille! Loved this post! I found it really inspiring!You're right, praising is what matters, talking to the students is what will make the difference."more time, more effort, more thought" Not only is this the best way to reach students but you'll also be role-modeling to them what is the best way to connect with people, to build community. You won't be the cool teacher with the cool board, but you'll be the cool teacher that made an impact on their lives.Thanks for sharing your story!

  5. I've never been much of a "rewards" guy. A couple years ago our admin required that each student receive one during each assembly. There was a number of reasons, but another story for another day. I didn't like hnor roll, but have the certificate; I didn't like moat improved, but I gave the award. Finally I decided that I needed to change something. So I started character certificates. I highlighted something special or unique about each students character. It was more fun and the students couldn't wait to see what is say about them in front of the whole school. I'm going to continue this this year in along with contribution certificates–how each student contributes to the class and the learning of others.Great move Pernille. Now I have to think of another post because you keep taking all mine ; )

  6. The occasional spontaneous reward is okay. The problem is the "one-for-one" reward for doing something the students should be doing anyway. I just use rewards to change things up, or to recognize really spectacular effort, but once again it is more spontaneous. Last year I had students ask me for rewards and parties for just doing what they were supposed to do. Their previous teacher had weekly rewards, prizes, etc., yet only 1 out of 11 of them actually made academic progress.Education is not a contest. Education is fun, it opens up opportunities, it lets the students grow. When I give out a reward, it's usually cool pencils, pens, erasers, notebooks, etc. so the student can actually use it them for academics. But above all, it's spontaneous.Great post once again.

  7. I spend a lot of time giving oral and written feedback. The kids scour their work to read what I have said because I put a lot of effort into finding something brilliant in their work and communicating it to them as genuinely as I can. I also give them a target for improvement (only one thing at a time) and then follow up to see that they take the step. It works really well for most kids. I need to provide oral follow up for the kids who don't read well.Anyway, good on you. You'll never turn back!

  8. Thank you all for your wonderful comments. I am so happy to hear how some of you have already taken this journey. As the school year comes nearer, I am glad that I have all of you to lean on if I waiver. I know this will benefit the kids and for that I am so grateful fore after all, we all do this for the love of our students.

  9. Yes! …because what would happen to them next year when you weren't around to give stickers when they got the answer right? This time they'll have something more than a smiley – they'll have the determination to be autonomous, seek mastery and be purposeful (in the words of daniel pink). Good luck! Non-punitive discipline is next 🙂

  10. I attended a competitive, college-prep school long before the era of stickers, smiley faces, and pizza parties. While I was never at the bottom of my class, I was never the top student either, so an "A" on a test or paper was a source of great satisfaction. Many years later, I still recall the words of praise my teachers wrote on some of my writing pieces and the times I was asked to write a note to a guest author or visiting politician. These were meaningful rewards that nourished my adolescent hunger for validation.As a teacher, I shied away from offering "junk" rewards. Like junk food, these give a quick high, but will never be enough to sustain growth. As is the case in sports, students must be allowed to feel the "thrill of victory" in academics that results from working hard to attain a goal. By giving them too many empty rewards too early in their school careers, we've turned our students into "sugar" addicts. It will take time to wean them off the empty, superficial diet, but instilling healthy motivation will give them far more lasting benefits.

  11. I've returned to using Fred Jones' Tools for Teaching Preferred Activity Time as a motivator and it's working beautifully. Students are engaged all day in work and quickly and quietly transition from one activity to another. I've been amazed how well it's gone – even with my resource and behavior

  12. Well done Pernille! I believe that the best thing we can do as teachers is become reflective. By asking the question, "why?" we challenge our selves to come up with the answer that it is best for all kids. We changed our monthly and yearly awards last year to am event where every student is honoured for a strength or talent they have. Every time a teacher or school begins to reflect on the reasons for awards, we move forward in education. Would love to continue to hear about how your year goes. Thanks for posting!

  13. I admire your energetic principled approach. And I think you are right on this one. I’ve always felt that many award systems divide and cheapen education. While I know that they work, based on many short-term highly visible metrics, I’ve always steered away from such things….

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s