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!
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.
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.
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.