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School Stories

Rewards: motivating compliance or learning?

I sometimes pretend and say ‘Yay!’
– my 7 y/o daughter explaining how she learned to ‘comply’ in her school

Incentive schemes, which are supposed to encourage desired behavior through the use of rewards, or discourage undesirable ones through punishments, are all too familiar to all of us. Probably similarly familiar are the findings that in the longer term, at least when it comes to people doing their jobs, the incentive systems can do more damage to the quality and efficiency than any short term results may suggest.

This is surely true for any kind of effort that requires critical and innovative thinking to be able to find creative solutions to problems — as pointed out by Dan Pink in his book, Drive. (His RSA talk animation has already been referenced on the Cooperative Catalyst in What Would Motivate Our Kids?)

Learning is a process in which many things enter the mix — curiosity, critical thinking, handling failure, perseverance, motivation,… — to produce novel knowledge about and better understanding of problems. The keyword here is problems, not solutions, as true learning is not about memorizing an existing solution to an old problem, but discovering new problems or shedding new light to existing problems — the solution often comes as an afterthought instead!

Still, schools seem obsessed with measuring and motivating the memorization of solutions instead of the discovery of problems. I say this because of the seemingly ubiquitous use of rewards — from A grades to actual bribing — and in some cases even punishments, in coercing the kids to ‘learn’ what their teachers teach.

Let’s stop for a moment to consider the above. Is it really learning that rewards and punishments motivate? Or do they simply trick kids to comply? Comply with the teaching method, comply with the curriculum, comply with the school rules…

Reading Alfie Kohn and his Punished by Rewards, it looks like him and Dan Pink agree on many accounts that incentives, in any form, are more damaging in the long term, than any short term results may lead us to believe they’re motivating the right behavior.

I thought to ask the members of the Cooperative Catalyst what they think about incentives: Can they truly motivate learning or they’re only good for compliance? What kind of incentive schemes, besides grades, are commonly in use in their schools? If incentives are avoided, what impact does that have on the students’ learning?

Before going to their answers, though, I’d like to share a personal story. I thought long about this and I decided it is too important to make teachers and schools stop for a moment and rethink the use of incentives — thus I decided to overcome my original apprehension and write about it!

My 7-year old daughter attends grade 1 in a French Immersion program, within a local public school here in Vancouver. (For those not familiar with French Immersion, the program basically tries to teach kids — whose parents’ mother tongue is not French — enough French so they can follow all subjects in the language, gradually adding subjects in English in later grades).

To deal with the big number of kids who are not making the effort to speak French in class, and after seeing an interesting and seemingly successful program  that the grade 3 teacher next door ‘swears by’, my daughter’s teacher decided to use classroom ‘cents’ to get all kids to speak French:

We have started a new incentive program in our class to encourage everyone to speak French.  We already earn ‘cents’ for good behaviour and work habits but now we are starting every week with 5 ‘cents’ in our special envelopes taped to our desks.  Whenever we hear someone speaking English in our class we get to ask them for a ‘cent’.  If someone hears us speaking English we must give them a ‘cent’.  Madame has also been handing out ‘cents’ to everyone when she hears them speaking French.  At the end of the week we will count up our ‘cents’ and deposit them in our bank accounts for the class store.  So far this week some of our children have earned over 11 ‘cents’ for all the French they have been speaking.

I find this damaging in many ways and have been actively trying to influence my daughter not to take part in punishing kids when she hears them speaking English — even managed to convince her to give some of her ‘cents’ away to her friends!

I recently had a long discussion with the teacher and found it very hard to go past the short term results, which seem to be amazing according to her. On the other hand, I listened sympathetically to her struggle to get more kids to try and speak French, given how ‘false’ (as she put it) the French Immersion environment is, with the teacher being the only one who speaks French to the kids — therefore turning the ‘immersion’ part into a false promise.

Still, I can’t help but find the use of ‘cents’ deplorable and have hard time accepting that most teachers use similar, if not the same method to motivate kids into compliance! (To me, even watching French cartoons sounds like a lot better way to immerse the kids into the language!)

Admittedly, as a parent, I have fallen into the trap many times — from innocent clapping when my daughter would finally dress up after begging her for 10 minutes, to bribing her with chocolate if she eats her broccoli first. I do know better not to use bribing to get her to read a book, or to convince her to stick to color pencils instead of pastel as a way to avoid making a mess when painting at home, though!

At home, we try to encourage our kids to explore and try new things as a way to learn — I wonder why the school system focuses on preparing legions of teachers to master ‘classroom management’ techniques instead?!

I’ll let the other members of the Cooperative Catalyst put their views on this topic below and I hope to hear stories and opinions for the readers too. Thank you!

Monika Hardy’s thoughts:

Carol Dweck’s Mindset was transformational to me on this topic. Distinguishing between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset, she helped me to see how seemingly innocent words can change posture, and then change culture. How the best thing we can model for anyone is the beauty in mistakes/failures. The mentality of: cool, that sucked, what can I learn from that?

Clay Shirky’s story of the daycare in Cognitive Surplus did the same. Where parents unexpectedly pick up their children even later once a late fine is imposed. The culture changed from a human relationship to a business relationship. I think the same thing happens with grades, or stickers, or marking off in any form, some check list of even core standards. I think we compromise that authenticity of learning and we rob the potential for a learner to be so much in the moment, there is not room for anything else, extrinsic rewards mean nothing. I believe we now can facilitate curiosity in public ed. We don’t need to be motivating toward compliance any more.

Mary Beth Hertz’s thoughts:

This topic is one close to my heart. While I am not going to cite any research or authors (my colleagues above have done an excellent job of this), I will speak from experience. I have always worked in inner city schools in Philadelphia. Over the past years I have seen a number of different classroom management ‘systems’ that involve red lights, green lights, “phone call home,” “loss of privilege” and other posters or signs in the room with children’s names on clothespins or velcro stuck next to where they are in the ‘system.’

I myself used such a system as a first year teacher since it was how I was trained.

However, these kinds of systems have always rubbed me the wrong way. They assume that there is only one consequence for many, varied actions. They teach kids how to conform and ‘behave,’ not how to regulate their behavior based on a situation. If you ask a student in a school I’ve worked in why they should, for example, not talk during instruction, many of them will answer “so I don’t get a color change.” They are not motivated by internal forces, but rather external forces. As such, what will they do when they leave school and those external forces are not there?

I have not used a ‘system’ for behavior in my classroom for many years. My school has a school-wide behavior system that I am essentially required to fall back on for the worst offenses, but my management is not based on rewards and threats, and I tell my students that. If something occurs in the classroom, we handle it the way it would be handled anywhere else. An apology is given, a parent is called, a conversation happens quietly in the hallway or after class. How it is handled depends on the offense. In this way, I feel that we get at the true root of whatever the problem is.

Do my kids always ‘behave?’ No. Do I sometimes feel that I’m not ‘strict’ enough? Sure. But my classroom, for the most part, reflects real life.

This is not to say that there aren’t ‘systems’ that work. My ideal school would use the Responsive Classroom model. This model includes daily classroom meetings, purposeful word choice by teachers and designing activities that teach students conflict management and how to work with others. My absolute favorite book in their series is The Power of Our Words. Sometimes improving classroom behaviors and management comes down simply to the words you choose!

I don’t know of a lot of inner city schools that use this model, and I wonder if our disadvantaged students are not only stuck with a watered-down, test-driven curriculum, but they also leave school without basic social skills as a result of having their behavior ‘managed’ by a system of rewards and punishments.

John Spencer’s thoughts:

If we say we want students to be prepared for the work force, a simple glance at thriving companies suggests that purpose, autonomy and creativity are greater motivators than rewards.  Thus, rewards are found to be entirely ineffective.

If we say we want life-long learners and critical thinkers, rewards seem to move from the zone of ineffective and into the area of unethical and anti-democratic.  Asking a student to move from what he or she finds interesting, meaningful or even ethical for the purpose of gaining a prize is not motivation.  So, let’s call it what it is: a bribe.  Withholding an item until a student jumps through a series of hoops isn’t motivation, either.  It’s extortion.

As a dad and as a teacher, I cringe when I think of bribery and extortion being used in the name of motivation.

About kima

Organizer: Father. Agent of change. I learn for a living. Curiosity is my passion. Writing is my dream. I believe in the value of social media as a way to meet new people and love double espresso as a way to feel warm with old friends ;-)


12 thoughts on “Rewards: motivating compliance or learning?

  1. You should check out Deci and Ryan’s stuff on self determination theory! Right up your alley.

    Posted by Corey Brooks | April 21, 2011, 9:50 pm
    • Thanks Corey for pointing to the Self Determination Theory! I think more researchers should raise their voice against the current practices of classroom management — including incentives that are ubiquitous in the traditional schooling system, like letter grades and standardized testing.

      I was intrigued by and would love to read this paper: Ryan, R. M., & Brown, K. W. (2005). Legislating competence: The motivational impact of high stakes testing as an educational reform. In A. E. Elliot & C. Dweck (Eds.), Handbook of competence (pp. 354-374). New York: Guilford Press. — something tells me every teacher and school administrator should read it!

      Posted by kima | April 23, 2011, 12:35 am
  2. I completely agree with the downside of using incentives to get students to “do right”. Back in grade school, I worried about my color card changing for not doing my homework rather than how I am affected by not practicing and further learning the material at home. There should be other ways in encouraging students to feel motivated to learn or know what is wrong without being exploited with prizes.

    Posted by Connie | April 22, 2011, 4:26 pm
    • Thanks for your feedback Connie! I am very concerned that many students learn how to navigate the school system and are “successful” in that environment, only to learn later that they’re not only lacking any useful skills for life, but are also lacking the initiative to take risks and explore their passions. I think this quote from Sir Ken Robinson echoes my sentiment on this very well: “For most of us the problem isn’t that we aim too high and fail – it’s just the opposite – we aim too low and succeed.” This is what the school system with all the incentives in place does to such students, it lets them aim too low and succeed within that system.

      Unfortunately, there is great concern about those students that are left out by the system — either labeled with learning “disabilities” (where “learning” is really used to mask the actual definition as “institutionalized schooling” and has little to do with actual learning!) or simply convinced they’re failures or less worthy because of their low grades and supposedly lacking skills for academic achievement. By focusing on those kids and enacting programs that are supposed to “help” them — like No Child Left Behind — we’re letting down the majority who do learn to comply and be “successful” within the system. If we, instead, do a research focusing on the happiness of those “successful” students as they leave the system and enter real life, I bet the results wil be surprising — at least to those who come up with programs to “save” the outliers!

      Posted by kima | April 23, 2011, 12:51 am
  3. A Twitter friend introduced me to a great book: The Game of School. While I haven’t read it yet, I ran into this quote that I find closely relevant to this post:

    The place we call school or college, which should be our society’s most vital promoter of learning, too often instead creates the field on which we learn to play a game that demoralizes us even when we are winners (and can permanently scar us when we lose). In the daily course of attending school, as they do what their teachers ask and strive to earn good grades, our children unknowingly substitute lesser goals for an invaluable goal they were born with: the pursuit of learning for its own sake. [The Game of School, p. 33]

    Posted by kima | April 23, 2011, 1:00 am
  4. The phrase, “we learn to play a game that demoralizes us even when we are winners (and can permanently scar us when we lose)” sums up my primary concerns with reward systems in education. The damage that can be done when students fall short of earning rewards tends to be obvious. Less understood is the insidious prize handed forward by the so-called winners – the perpetuating of the same reward system. It reminds me of Paulo Friere’s notion – that the oppressed, when they rise up, often become the new oppressors. It’s a lose lose situation.

    Posted by Cindy | April 25, 2011, 1:50 am
    • Thanks Cindy! Before your comment, I thought the damage for those earning the rewards was that they loose their intrinsic motivation for learning as they adjust their effort to “just enough” to earn a reward. That was a limited view and I think you’re right about them perpetuating the same reward system. The most obvious place where I experienced it personally was when teaching assistants became professors at my University — with all due respect to few exceptions.

      I think the problem is perpetuated through the society, unfortunately. The role of a teacher-student is found in many forms in various areas in life, though we may use names like mentor, manager, supervisor for the teacher. I guess it is not a big leap to point the finger to the fat bonuses CEOs and other top executives are earning in the corporate world as one of the reasons why companies resist removing incentive schemes, despite the fact that many researches have conclusively shown it doesn’t help the productivity of their employees. 😦

      Posted by kima | April 25, 2011, 4:11 am
  5. Great conversation! I would just like to add a couple of points.

    First, the rewards and punishments (sometimes one, sometimes the other) that are used in schools implicitly define the power relationships existing in classrooms and schools. At first glance, it may seem that this relationship, where the teacher is obviously more powerful than the student, sees incentives flowing only one way–from teacher to student.

    But when you reflect on classroom dynamics a little more you’ll observe that teachers are rewarded and punished by students every day–a little more subtly, to be sure, but it’s there. Consider, for example, the actions of the teacher who desperately wants to be liked by students, or the teacher wants to be seen as being in control of the class. There is a sense in which students can be seen as “rewarding” teachers for their behaviour and their actions by participating in class, cooperating, doing homework, etc.

    The big question for me, however, relates to the “why” of it all. Why do we need power dynamics that are negotiated through extrinsic rewards? Could it be that we continue to perpetuate learning environments which no longer work (if they ever really did?) When truly engaged, children and adults alike need very few extrinsic forms of motivation to keep going. In fact, in places where “flow” is at its peak, you often need extrinsic incentives to “stop”.

    I’m glad that you have taken the time to write this, Goran. I look forward to other comments and conversation.


    Posted by Stephen Hurley | April 25, 2011, 5:51 am
    • You know Stephen, I think that when the parties on each side of the rewards system are intelligent enough — and kids seem to even have better intuition than adults when it comes to “learning” the system to be able to play in it — there are two possible outcomes. They either see the system as damaging and drop it, or they perpetuate it to a level where each side is motivated purely by the drive to win. In the later case, the power dynamics you refer to kick in, so you end up with kids turning their success in winning the rewards into a power position that makes teachers scramble to win their attention and do them favors like giving them extra points at an exam to keep them at that elevated level above the rest.

      I experienced this first hand when in high school when I won the 1st prize in an electronics competition at a nationwide level. My teacher was so ecstatic about that, that I pretty much got a free pass for the remaining 2 years in her subjects. She even once had to respond to a question from the class why she never asked me a single question in class through the entire school year and was afraid to question me that day to show the rest of the class I am learning — which gave me a chance to prepare for the next class and show my peers I was worthy of my status as a star student in the subject. The truth is, the relationship was more damaging to my learning than if I simply worked to make my grades, without turning the power dynamics upside down. Which has proven true when I had to work much harder at University to overcome my lack of knowledge in some areas. I am pretty sure the teacher didn’t benefit from it either, despite her pride that for once she had a student winning that prize earlier.

      Posted by kima | April 26, 2011, 2:26 am
  6. Great post Goran! Unfortunately, we see rewards and punishments being applied in schools far too frequently. My personal opinion is that the ‘bribes’ you refer to are not present in the real world and as a result slowly erode students’ intrinsic motivation. When acquiring a reward, rather than learning, becomes the goal, I believe we limit our students’ growth. What happens when they acquire the reward? Do they stop?

    In many of the classrooms I visit, marks and grades are being used as the reward and punishment. Students are completing assignments in a quest for receiving a good mark, not because they care much about what they should be learning. The other concern I have is when I see marks being used as a punishment when students fail to complete work by a certain deadline. Many teachers who apply these techniques claim that because students are afraid of losing marks, they usually have their work ready by the due date. Sadly, many of their students have rushed to complete their work or worse still, copied their work off of another student in an effort to meet a teacher-established deadline.

    Finally, I struggle with the words ‘classroom management’. I also worry when I hear educators refer to maintaining ‘control’. I admit that sometimes these terms are not being used in a negative wa however, the very reference of ‘management’ and ‘control’ points towards teachers applying techniques tha force students into compliance. I would muc rather discuss the characteristics of a positive ‘learning’ environment, rather than effective ‘management’ strategies.

    For some educators, making the shift away from rewards and punishments is difficult. I think there are two steps involved in making the shift. First, educators need to understand and see the philosophical issues attached to rewards and punishments. The second step is breaking free of techniques and strategies that they may have applied for many many years. That said, these are not good excuses for attempting to make the shift.

    Thanks for raising this important issue!


    Posted by Aaron Akune | April 25, 2011, 6:06 pm
    • Thanks Aaron for your thoughts on this one. The “too frequently” part is what saddens me and why I thought it important to voice my and the opinion of my coop friends in this post against incentives as a tool for motivating learning.

      I think the answer to your question “What happens when they acquire the reward? Do they stop?” is indeed, they stop. As my personal story from my reply to Stephen above goes to show, acquiring the top reward one could get in electronics in high school, I lost all motivation to keep learning — which was made worse by my teacher stopping to challenge me.

      At the same time, I think we need experiences that will lead to disillusion with the rewards to help us overcome them. With me, luckily, it happened in my first year at University. While most of the other “star” students were working hard to get the top marks (10 in the system in place) I happened to get an 8 very quickly on a subject that was considered as lowest priority and everyone used it to improve their GPA (each subject was treated equally in terms of credits). When I met the TA, she offered me to retake the test, stating that she’s confident I can get a 9 or even a 10 without too much effort — which sounded like a bargain to me. I decided then that I will never retake any exam, no matter what mark I get and I kept that principle even when I got a 6, which was the lowest pass mark for a subject. I also grew up to be a bit of a trouble maker as I went with my colleagues to meet the TAs during the review times after an exam as a sidekick to try and point to errors the TAs were making when marking the tests — which didn’t make me popular among the TA community 😉

      I like to think that I helped my daughter (in the personal story I presented in this post) to get disillusioned by the system her teacher used … after a while, she started asking me “Dad, when will Mme stop using ‘cents’ in class? I don’t like it anymore!” … luckily, recently the teacher did drop the system, though I don’t think I can take any credit for that as there are still other systems in place to control behavior — like two marble jars representing “good” and “bad”, with the “good” one starting full at the beginning of the week and the “bad” one filling in when someone breaks a rule or doesn’t follow the teacher’s instructions … while those systems are not trying to control the motivation for learning in a direct way, I think they have consequences to learning which are probably hard to disseminate and analyze

      Posted by kima | April 26, 2011, 2:59 am


  1. Pingback: The Wejr Board » Rewards: 2 Parent Perspectives - August 12, 2011

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