alfie kohn, being a teacher, being me, punishment, rewards, Student-centered

Why Have You Not Given Up Rewards Yet?

I used to be the queen of the awesome board, the gold  stickers, and definitely the special lunches and privileges.  I thought my kids loved it, and sure some did, but after a huge hallelujah moment, I realized the harm I was doing to my classroom and I ended all individual rewards.  So have you stopped handing out rewards in your classroom?  If not here are some reasons why you should consider it.

  1. Students don’t actually need rewards to work.  Sure they work in the short-run but guess what after a while you have to up the ante and keep going up because it just isn’t going to be very effective for long.  And yes, students will take rewards if you offer them, but they will actually also work without the perpetual carrot dangling in front of their noses.    And you won’t believe me until you actually try it.   
  2. Rewards tend to go to the same kids over and over and over.  We say that it is really up to the students to get the rewards but at the same time we can probably all list the kids that would have a hard time earning one.  So then who are we fooling?
  3. Rewards split the students.  If you ever want to create a class of have and have not’s in your classroom just hand out rewards; the students will quickly figure out who the “smart” kids are and who are not.  Or worse, who the teachers like and who they don’t.
  4. Rewards devalue the learning.  By attaching a reward to a learning task, you are telling a student that the task is not worth doing if it weren’t for the reward.  That is not how learning should be.  Learning should be fun, exciting, and curiosity driven, not mechanical and focused on the end point.  When a reward becomes the end point, then that is the focus.
  5. You keep giving rewards; the students won’t work without it.  With rewards you create a culture of “what’s in it for me?” and the learning just isn’t enough.  And yet the learning and experience should be enough for the child, provided it is meaningful and purposeful.  So set them up from the beginning to earn rewards and soon there will be hardly any extra work or deeper digging into concepts.  If the child knows that they “just” have to do whatever to get a reward, or an A for that matter, then that is what they will do.  The learning stops wherever you dictate it to.
  6. The students will argue with you.  My first year students would get upset over which sticker I gave them because in their minds certain stickers were worth more.  A sticker!  Now equate that to extra recess, or books, or special lunches and think of the conflict it creates.  You want to make sure your struggling learners keep feeling more disenfranchised; keep up the rewards.
  7. Rewards become the measure of success. If you don’t reward a child then they don’t think they have succeeded.  No more handing them back a project with great feedback; if that sticker or some recognition isn’t attached then it just isn’t enough.  I had students collect stickers and notes to showcase to the other students, it became a competition of who could gather more.  It wasn’t about what they had learned or how great a project was, it was only about that note.
  8. Students lose their voice in the learning process.  When a teacher is the only one deciding on success shown through rewards, the classroom does not belong to the students.  That teacher is therefore the ultimate power within the room and the kids know it.  If you want to create a student-centered classroom, you cannot have such a vast difference in learning authority.  To build the kids confidence they have to have a voice.
  9. But they all  get rewarded….  Some schools run weekly recognitions of students for whatever reason, or some classrooms do.  And while this may seem innocent enough, after all, there is nothing tangible tied to it, it still causes jealousy and anxiety.  If a program calls for recognizing every single student for the same things, then why are we recognizing in a public way in the first place.  Wouldn’t it be easier just to state the expectations and then tell the kids that we are happy they are all living up to it?  There is no need to create weekly recognition if we are doing our jobs right as educators; making our students feel valued and respected as part of the learning community.
  10. Rewards create more work for the teacher.  I was so worried that everyone had been on my “Awesome board” that I kept track = more paperwork.  I also had to make sure that I was eating lunch with all of my students = more paperwork.  I also had to make sure I could justify to parents why one child got a certain privilege and another didn’t = more paperwork.  Do you see where I am going?  Rewards and trying to keep it “fair and balanced” creates more work for us without providing any long-term benefits. 

So you may assume that my classroom is one stripped of rewards and recognition, yet it isn’t.  My students have parties, except they get them after the fact, when we have something to celebrate.  I don’t punish them if they are being rowdy, uncooperative or downright disrespectful,  but we have circles where we discuss our behavior and how we perhaps need to adjust it.  I have high expectations for my students to “represent” as much as they have for me.  We strive to create a learning environment where we all feel comfortable messing up and trying again, because we know that the learning journey is the focus and not just the end result.  So I recognize and I reward but I do it through the learning and the conversations.  I don’t have a classroom where students expect things to do their jobs, I have a classroom of kids eager to learn, on some days more than others, but who are always willing to be a part of what we consider our second home; our classroom.  All without the use of rewards.

4 thoughts on “Why Have You Not Given Up Rewards Yet?”

  1. My sticker book that played so prominently on day one last year, is an afterthought this year. I like to give a small treat as a reward for the whole class as a way of saying "I'm proud of you" or "You mean so much to me," but gone are the days of kids working toward prizes. You're right – just setting the expectation of quality, challenging, rewarding work is enough to render the other motivators obsolete.How do your colleagues react to this? Surely some still hang on to their extrinsic motivations…but do they regard you as insane for doing away?

  2. Really enjoyed your post. Thank-you. Awards, gold stars, empty words and empty praise, grades, trophies and all the other paraphernalia of dead end psychology have no place in classrooms.Recognition, encouragement for progress made, connection, collaboration, purpose and satisfaction in work well done and intrinsic the love of learning are the rewards all children need.

  3. So far, I’ve had a good foray into the no rewards classroom. This fall, I decided that I wasn’t going to give out candy or prizes for games, performances, behavior, etc. (frankly it was just too much work on my part and it wasn't really producing any noticable results). There was definitely some sadness and some kids who threatened to change into the French class (where apparently they get the most candy). But for the most part, one month in, nobody even mentions it. I’ve also been making a conscious effort to give stronger, meaningful and positive feedback. The kids are addicted to it. Unlike before, they just aren’t satisfied with a letter. They want to know what I thought and actually demand that I tell them. I’ll take it.

  4. I agree wholeheartedly about rewards if that is how teachers choose to use their stickers, candies, ribbons, etc. However, I totally disagree that students aren't worth my effort to acknowledge them extrinsically. As much as I would love for all students to intrinsically be motivated to conform, cooperate, and be collaborative, adult society is not the best model for that vision. We know that there are different learning styles that I believe coincide with motivating factors as well. Some people just need extrinsic "attaboys" more than others and that includes children.

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