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Distracted by Rewards: Moving Beyond Carrots and Sticks

—Justin Minkel
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When my daughter started kindergarten, this was what surprised me most: She was utterly distracted from the purpose of learning by systems of reward and punishment.

A typical conversation on the way home from school:

Me: So what happened in class today?

Ariana: Christopher had to move his pin down twice! I got on purple, and Susan moved up all the way to pink. During Computers I passed a level on Reading Rocket, so Mrs. Drury gave me a sticker and a piece of candy.

Me: Mmm hm, mm hm. So … What did you learn about?

Ariana: I don’t know. Stuff. Mrs. Bindle read us a book.

True, my daughter was five years old at the time. Still, I wanted to hear about the block castles she built, the stories that grabbed her imagination, or the crazy science experiment that exploded all over the place.

Instead I got a daily commentary on who changed their color on the behavior chart, the compliment her class got for being quiet in the hall, and whether she got Tropical Skittles or Peanut M&M’s for passing another reading level.

Two important notes:

1. My daughter had a very competent teacher for kindergarten, and she made dramatic progress in reading, writing, science, and math.

2. Her school has an incredible art teacher, a STEM focus on engineering challenges and scientific inquiry, and a global focus due in part to the 30 countries of origin represented among the 300+ kids.

So why was she so fixated on the punishments and rewards? How could something as mundane as a fun-size packet of Skittles have dislodged all memory of the read-alouds, math games, and science experiments she did that day?

As Alfie Kohn wrote in Punished by Rewards, “Some people assume that children will run wild if they are not controlled. However, the children for whom this is true typically turn out to be those accustomed to being controlled—those who are not trusted, given explanations, encouraged to think for themselves, or helped to develop and internalize good values.”

Kids are capable of intrinsic motivation. They like to think. They like to make art, write stories, and build things.

There’s a reason Carl Sagan said that 2nd graders make the best scientists—they possess a curiosity, an excitement about the natural world, and a spirit of inquiry that amazes those of us lucky enough to teach or raise them.

We should be igniting and sustaining that trail-blazing spirit. So why do we distract the children in our care with sticker charts, time-outs, and treasure box troves that have no clear connection to learning?

Walking the Harder Path

Rewards and punishments are a shortcut. It takes a lot longer to develop an intrinsic love of learning in students than it does to hand out glittery pencils and Strawberry Shortcake stickers. It takes longer to develop a connection with an angry child than it does to threaten him with letters home or send him to the principal’s office.

Confession: I throw these stones from a glass house. I have had a behavior chart every year I’ve taught. I give weekly rewards like bookmarks and snowman stickers for 100 percent homework, and I have consequences when kids do the wrong thing.

But I try every year to move toward the harder, deeper motivations my students need.

The child who is cruel to other children needs to know that his actions won’t be tolerated in our class. But he also needs to develop compassion. He needs a deeper reason than fear of punishment to stop shoving classmates at recess or making fun of their clothes.

The child who works hard all day needs to know that her diligence will be noticed now, not just in some hazy future when she makes it into college or gets a good job. But she also needs to develop a love of learning that has nothing to do with a trip to the treasure chest. She needs to work hard because she wants to become a better scientist, writer, and mathematician, not so the teacher she adores will favor her with praise or move up her clip.

We need to walk the harder middle path. We need to trust children’s capacity for goodness and brilliance, and we need to be purposeful about the class culture we build.

That’s easy to say but hard to do, of course.

Here are three ways I’ve found to move away from external incentives with the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders I teach.

Talk about the purpose of learning. A few months back, I had a class discussion with my 1st graders about the kinds of lives they want to live someday. They talked about what would be fun to study in college, what job they might like best, and the kinds of people they want to become. We connected those long-term intentions to decisions they make now, like whether to read at home or pay attention at the rug during a math lesson.

Teach kids to resolve their own conflicts. Most misbehavior in the classroom starts with the inevitable struggles that arise from 25 young human beings sharing a relatively small space for seven hours a day. During the first couple weeks of school, I teach kids how to have a Peace Talk. (I recently wrote a chapter book called Clubhouse Clash with a Peace Talk at the center of the plot, for teachers who’d like to introduce the concept through a read-aloud.) My 1st graders can usually resolve their conflicts on their own now, instead of coming to me to hand down a consequence.

Give students plenty of choices, time to collaborate, and meaningful work. Daniel Pink wrote in Drive that human beings are deeply motivated by autonomy, collaboration with like-minded colleagues, and work that matters to them. Policies that govern school and the workplace tend to rely almost exclusively on punishments and rewards, but that focus has more to do with habit and convenience than proven effectiveness. Behavioral research shows that for most children and adults, intrinsic motivation is a more powerful sustaining force than sticks and carrots.

At a classroom level, this means giving students choices: on what book to read, what topic to research, or what to write about during writer’s workshop. It means talking less, so the kids can talk more. And it means handing out fewer worksheets (which most teachers furtively toss in the recycling bin at the end of the day), in favor of more meaningful projects.

As we get to know our students, we can find out what each child is most excited about—whether it’s kittens, monster trucks, or superheroes—and find ways to connect the curriculum to that topic. We can help students set their own goals and tie those goals into the dream each child has for her or his life.

We can also begin removing some of the punishments and rewards that tend to be such potent distractions from purposeful work.

Pulling Down the Behavioral Chart

When I looped to 3rd grade with my last class, we had a discussion mid-year about whether the behavior chart was still necessary. We talked about the pros and cons, and decided in the end to take it down, to great cheers and applause.

The kids’ behavior didn’t deteriorate the next day. They didn’t start misbehaving or slacking off. They kept working hard, and they kept being kind to each other.

My job got harder at that point, but it also got better. When a student did the wrong thing, I couldn’t just move his pin down. I had to have a conversation with him, and I had to think hard about where the misbehavior was coming from.

—Justin Minkel

A few weeks ago, I had a similar discussion with my 1st graders, though it led to a different outcome. The kids like the three levels of positive consequences on our chart (we have a superhero theme, so the top levels are “gaining power,” “soaring,” and “flying high.”) But they feel embarrassed when they have to get up and move their pin down in front of everybody, so we got rid of the negative half of the chart.

Students’ actions in my class still have consequences. If a child keeps distracting her classmates during writer’s workshop, she moves to a different desk. If a child hurts another student at recess, we have a conference with his parents. But the conversations mostly happen one-on-one now, between the student and me, without the whole class watching.

Rich Conversations

When one of my students' moms or dads picks her up at the end of the day, this is the conversation I’m hoping takes place on their drive home:

Dad: What did you do in school today?

Child: We built this parachute, and at first it kept falling too fast, but then we made the strings longer and the parachute bigger and it worked. And I wrote a story about a penguin who hated being cold so she learned from this seal how to knit a scarf. And Mr. Fox dug a tunnel to this mean farmer’s chicken house so the animals won’t starve now, and we talked about whether it’s OK for Mr. Fox to steal. Joel said it is because the farmers are mean and nasty so it’s fine to be mean back to them, and besides he’s a carnivore so that’s what he’s supposed to do, but I said …

Not a sticker chart or Skittles bag in sight.

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