Teaching Opinion

Extrinsic Rewards Exit Strategy

By David Ginsburg — December 27, 2013 2 min read
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Last post I explained why it’s wrong to give students rewards for good behavior. But at schools where rewards are a way of life, it may be better to pull back on them over time rather than overnight. Begin by discussing as a staff what behaviors you’re rewarding and how you’re rewarding students for them. Talk with students about this too, and explain the differences between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Then eliminate your most misguided uses of rewards as you move toward a school culture that supports intrinsic motivation. Here are some areas you might start with:

Expected/required behaviors. Stop rewarding students for being on time, turning in assignments, or meeting other basic requirements. There are natural consequences of being responsible or not being responsible, and the sooner students learn this, the better off they’ll be both in and out of school.

Abilities vs. work habits. Success has as much or more to do with work habits as ability. That’s why it’s better to reinforce non-cognitive skills such as effort, resourcefulness, and teamwork (Success Comes From the HEART) than simply reward students for getting the right answers.

“No Homework” passes. If the absence of something is a reward, then the presence of it must be punishment. This isn’t a referendum on homework. It’s about the messages we give children. Don’t tell kids to do something because it’ll benefit them, and then give them a free pass on it if they’re compliant in class. Take a stand: either no homework or no “no homework” passes.

Lunch with the teacher. With all due respect, I wouldn’t have wanted to break bread with my teachers (and I doubt my students would have wanted to with me). Besides, it’s important to connect with kids in the context and confines of the classroom. But I get that younger children in particular may feel special when a teacher has lunch with them. What I don’t get is why this would be a reward for good behavior, especially when teachers say this strengthens their relationships with students. It seems to me teachers should have lunch with kids they’re having the most trouble connecting with, which is usually those who are not demonstrating reward-worthy behavior in class.

Competition. Having students compete against each other in class and rewarding the winners is a mistake for reasons I’ve shared before (Put the Kibosh on Classroom Competition). Cultivate cooperation and collaboration in the classroom, and leave competition to those activities in which students choose to compete: sports, chess, debate, etc.

Bribery. Dangling a reward so that students will partake in an activity undermines the educational value of that activity. And if students will only engage in an activity if pizza or candy is on the line, the problem is the activity, not students’ lack of motivation. Provide engaging activities, and students will engage in them--no bribery required.

Giving students rewards was my biggest regret as a teacher, and discontinuing this practice was one of the best decisions I ever made. How about you? Are you using rewards to the detriment of your students? If so, make it your new year’s resolution to revisit and revise how you use rewards, with the goal of shifting from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation.

Best wishes for 2014--may it be a rewarding year for you and your students.

Image by Ber Lybil, provided by Dreamstime license

The opinions expressed in Coach G’s Teaching Tips are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.