alfie kohn, classroom expectations, rewards

My Barren Wasteland – A Room Without Rewards

A barren wasteland with no smiling allowed.  A silent classroom with a teacher standing sternly at the front slapping a ruler against their palm waiting for the next kid that dares to actually have a good time.  These are all images people tend to get when I say I do not believe in rewards.

Recently I wrote a post detailing how I reward my students through time rather than extrinsic motivators.  One comment I received asked me whether I believed in whole classroom rewards or not, which is a question I often get.  The answer is no.  I don’t believe in the idea of rewards and agree with Alfie Kohn when he states that “Rewards and punishment  are ways of manipulating behavior that destroy the potential for real learning.”

I believe that rewards twist the focus of the classroom and provides students with a false reason to want to engage.  I believe that rewards always end up benefiting the same students and some are always left out.  I know some will say that classroom rewards are the answer to that inequity, but ask yourself; how often have you taken away classroom points or not given marbles based on the actions of one kid or just a couple?  I know I used to even though it did not reflect the behavior of the whole classroom.  So you still produce an inequity because the other kids certainly know who it is that makes them lose points and believe me that plays into social situations sooner or later.

The bottom line for me is when we perpetually stick a carrot in front of students faces whether it be through points, letters, or marbles, we are teaching them that they should not do anything without a reward.  So while in the short term it may work to have kids get points to earn something as a classroom, in the long run it is not shaping their behavior to want to behave simply for the greater good.  I need kids that want to be in my classroom and I expect kids to take responsibility for their behaviors.  So I do not make kids “earn” anything in the reward sense, and I do not single out kids.  Instead we celebrate class-wide whenever an occasion arises.   Celebrations are given not earned and they can be based on whether we have achieved something or it is a certain time of year.  Often students and I discuss how we should celebrate something and it is never ever taken away from them.    I never use it is a way to manipulate their behavior or to point out anything.  We simply celebrate, and there is always a lot to celebrate!

So while classroom rewards may seem harmless, think of what it projects.  Think of what message it really is sending the students.  Are we trying to tell them that we do not expect them to behave without some sort of reward?  Are we trying to tell them that society will always reward them extrinsically whenever they do what is expected of them, because if we are, those kids will be mightily disappointed in adult life.

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4 thoughts on “My Barren Wasteland – A Room Without Rewards”

  1. I completely agree with avoiding all individual or group "incentives". Positive Discipline for the Classroom by Jane Nelson is an excellent resource for teachers who want to build intrinsic motivation through class meetings. Similar to your comment about how you spend "time" with your students, one of the main components of PD in the classroom is "compliments and appreciation". Using her model, the students learn to observe and compliment each other. There are several other building blocks that all encouage a sense of community. Our whole school has been trained by her personally. It's been incredible to see kids take charge of their own learning and monitor their own relationships in a positive way.

  2. Thank you for writing your thoughts to this post. I have not read the book you mentioned but will definitely be looking into it, I never was inspired by a book just followed my own gut instinct and I think that is why it works so well. I love the idea of modeling compliments and how to speak to one another.

  3. I am a big reader of professional books. I love the ideas they spark even if they are just "theory". The cool thing was because we do PD school wide, we got rid of things like citizenship awards or benching students for not doing their homework, and began teaching them how to solve problems. We have a "Wheel of Choice" posted on the playground to help children make good decisions and solve their own problems. It works both in and out of the classroom.I've been teaching without rewards/punishments for three years now, and I love it because I am one of those teachers who was never into stickers anyway. 🙂 Besides, the kids who respond to stickers (and grades for that matter, since those are external rewards too…) don't really need them. They just want to know that you see how good they are and are happy when you spend special time with them. But it's the students who don't respond to stickers, who don't get good grades, who need to hear what they are doing right as well and need the teacher time the most. It's all about building self esteem and the needs of each child to be accepted and have a sense of belonging. Those kids, when we connect to them, grow the most, and that is why I love my job.Anyhow, I appreciated your post and was excited to read your perspective. The group incentives were the hardest to give up but once I did, I realized we didn't need them anyway! Now to quit grades…. 🙂

  4. I agree with you 100%. I follow the Responsive Classroom that is against rewards for all the reasons you stated. Also study after study has shown that when extrinsic rewards are attached to a task, like reading, the love and the enjoyment of said activity declines. It's no longer fun.

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