The day “reward’ became a bad word

I once had a district science administrator conduct a walk-through in my classroom during my lunch period–surprise!!–to look for evidence of science inquiry teaching. (Don’t ask.) The kids happened to be eating in the classroom with me and watching a [district-approved] movie. She was surprised they weren’t in the cafeteria. I exclaimed loudly, “These students completed every one of their homework assignments for the ENTIRE week, so they get to spend their Friday lunch block eating with me in the room!”

I beamed. The kids beamed.

The administrator, with a broad fake grin and an over-enthusiastic tone that dripped with sarcasm, replied slowly,”Woooowww! You guys are soooo lucky! You get rewarded for doing what you’re already SUPPOSED to do!”

The kids’ smiles faltered. Their eyes shifted over to me.

The first thought that popped into my head was, Excuse me, Mrs. Science Bureaucrat, I literally wrote the book on classroom management.  Are you questioning how I reward my students? I motivated 21 out of 24 inner-city students to complete all their homework for an entire week–accurately, I might add–and they’re PROUD. I gave up my lunch break to reinforce their efforts and show them that I value the time and effort they spent practicing their skills at home. How dare you undermine what’s working for students you’ve seen for less than fifteen seconds?

My second, wiser thought was that I didn’t need to defend what I knew was best practice.  My happy expression didn’t change. “They’re hard workers,” I said back, smiling at my class. “They earned it!”

That day I realized just how pervasive the backlash against rewards has become in some educational circles, and unfortunately, the trend is still gaining momentum. Rewarding students has become passe. Students are supposed to give 100% effort every day, all day, because they have developed intrinsic motivation and understand the inherent value of their work. Which is not a difficult task since teachers always give them relevant, inherently rewarding tasks that they’re passionate about completing.

I love, love, love that concept in theory. Unfortunately, we teach in reality.

Sure, we want students to be actively engaged in authentic, real-world tasks that prepare them to be global citizens in the 21st century. But we all know that many students are relegated to taking multiple choice assessments and practicing for standardized tests for a good chunk of their school day, and teachers are mandated by their districts to keep it that way. What is the incentive for a student to pay full attention and give 100% on the same mundane tasks every day? We can talk education reform until we turn blue, but let’s recognize that students must have an incentive to work hard in their current learning environment. Apathy is a bigger problem in today’s classrooms than ever before, and we can’t sidestep the need for incentives and rewards by pretending that students are consistently engaged in authentic learning tasks when the era of accountability demands otherwise. Much of the anti-rewards fervor stems from the pretense that any teacher can create a highly engaging learning environment in which all students are intrinsically motivated 100% of the time. It’s simply not true.

YES! Kids need rewards sometimes! "Apathy is a bigger problem in today's classrooms than ever before, and we can't sidestep the need for incentives and rewards by pretending that students are consistently engaged in authentic learning tasks when the era of accountability demands otherwise."

The other root cause of why reward systems have fallen out of favor is the overuse and misuse of incentives as common educational practice for many years. This is rightly so–it’s disturbing to encounter a classroom of students who constantly ask “What do we GET if we do this?” and only act like civilized human beings in exchange for a trip to the prize box.  I think we can all agree that bribing students with candy and stickers isn’t a sound long-term strategy for motivating learners. But that approach is quite different from recognizing hard work and outstanding actions with a well-timed, related reward. Somehow in our shift away from the use of prizes and treats, we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater.  Lord help the person who utters the word reward without prefacing it EVERY TIME by saying “Of course, the ultimate goal is to produce intrinsic motivation, so rewards should be non-tangible, used sparingly, and eventually removed altogether.”

There’s also a vocal minority who will argue that rewards don’t prepare students for the real world: “You don’t get a reward from your boss for showing up to work on time each day and doing what you’re supposed to do,” they insist. But who would bother showing up at all if they weren’t getting paid?  At least adults have financial rewards for putting in long hours of sustained effort on difficult tasks. And yet, some of us lose our motivation because that financial reward is too small.  Teachers, of all people, know what it feels like to have hard work go unrecognized and uncompensated. Why would we want our students to experience that day after day?

I am hereby granting official permission to the classroom teacher: it is okay to have a system for rewarding students.

The little rewards we’re given are what keeps us going sometimes–the occasional catered staff lunch, or the announcement that teachers can go home early on an Friday afternoon. These gestures of appreciation are most effective when some are unexpected surprises and others are planned so that we have something to look forward to. A thank-you note from a parent or administrator or a half-dead bouquet of dandelions from an enthusiastic student can make us happier to complete the hard parts of our job. Simple rewards are how we know that someone’s paying attention and that our efforts matter. Why wouldn’t our students feel the same way? Is a compliment and an extra five minutes of recess the worst thing in the world?

I’m advocating for the return of the reward, and in the next post, I’m going to share how do it in a way that’s responsible and effective.

And if you’d like to find out what happened to that science administrator? Check the comments.

Read Part 2 of this post series: Ideas for student rewards and incentives

Read Part 3 of this post series: Rewarding kids responsibly in the 21st century

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Angela Watson was a classroom teacher for 11 years and has turned her passion for helping other teachers into a career as an educational consultant based in Brooklyn, NY. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has published 3 books, launched a blog and webinar series, designs curriculum resources, and conducts seminars in schools around the world. Subscribe via email for blog updates, exclusive tips & tricks, activities, printables, and more.

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Angela Watson November 30, 2010 at 6:27 pm

After the great recession, that science administrator’s position was cut. She was assigned back into the classroom.

I was DYING to learn her plan for motivating students to complete the endless test prep the district required without rewarding her kids for ‘doing what they’re supposed to do’. (Her grade level was given five, count ‘em, FIVE, test prep workbooks that each student was to complete by March.)

Apparently that task was harder than she thought, because she went into early retirement mid-year.

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2 Sue Watson January 7, 2012 at 7:40 pm

Love your comment about Wicked Wanda going into the regular classroom. I am always amazed at non-classroom school folk(see how tactful I am?) that don’t get it. I also use Friday lunch in the classroom as a reward for my students. It works, so do the other 45 rewards I use…LOL. But the truth is that we have such high expectations of specific and regurgitative learning from the children nowadays. If the children are at risk in any way, it can be overwhelming for them. I think any incentives we can use that makes the massive amounts of information and testing “doable” are valuable and our OWN BUSINESS. Thank you for this validation. Sue

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3 Angela Watson January 12, 2012 at 12:37 pm

You’re welcome, Sue! Lunch in the classroom with the teacher is one of the most motivating rewards I’ve used for elementary schools kids. Even if kids don’t value time with the teacher (as a few probably won’t) they will still want to participate so they can be with their friends in the classroom, not siting at an empty table in the cafeteria.

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4 Marjorie Sample November 30, 2010 at 6:55 pm

What a fantastic, well-written article!!! A lot of really good points- and I like how you said a “well-timed, related” reward- very true!

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5 Angela Watson December 1, 2010 at 9:42 pm

Thank you, Marjorie. Well-timed and related are the keys. More to come. :-)

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6 Sarah Scheffer November 30, 2010 at 8:57 pm

Thank you, Thank you, Thank you for this article! I don’t find that reward systems work in every class, but my current class works really hard with theirs. I use individual points as well as class points, and the kids put a lot of effort in. This is a class that would put effort in without the points, but they take it up a notch with this system. It works for me, it works for them, what’s not to like?

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7 Angela Watson December 1, 2010 at 9:46 pm

Hi, Sarah, I’ve had classes like that before: great kids and pretty well motivated, but adding in a reward system makes a BIG difference in their effort levels as well as their enthusiasm. Plus, I think they deserve it–who better to recognize than students who are doing a terrific job?

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8 Sarah November 30, 2010 at 9:06 pm

I’m always curious if the “anti-reward” folks work for their original salary. I guess since they think intrinsic motivation is enough, they have turned down every raise offered to them and have never asked for an additional pay boost.

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9 Angela Watson December 1, 2010 at 9:54 pm

Good point. Many of the anti-reward people are independent consultants, speakers/authors, or other free agents who choose which assignments they take and have control over when and where they work, as well as their salary requirements.

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10 Leah November 30, 2010 at 9:58 pm

You’ve reached the ‘sane’ middle ground on this topic. Thanks.

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11 Angela Watson December 1, 2010 at 9:56 pm

Thanks, Leah. I like that. :-)

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12 miss tyneal November 30, 2010 at 11:35 pm

Thank you, thank you THANK YOU for writing this article. I am going to work this into my teacher information kit. I recently spent some time in a classroom to help implement behavior management techniques…..after a few days my suggestions weren’t being used. When I inquired the teacher told me they weren’t a disciplinarian and they didn’t believe in rewards…..ok then. My work here is done?

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13 Angela Watson December 1, 2010 at 10:02 pm

Very interesting–this is a different scenario. It sounds like this teacher is not philosophically opposed to rewards, s/he just doesn’t perceive him/herself as a disciplinarian who would NEED to offer rewards (or presumably, consequences.) How well does the classroom run? I’m assuming there are some issues since you were sent in there to implement behavior management techniques. Is the teacher open to new ideas and just hasn’t found a system that fits with his/her teaching style, or is this a case of “everything’s fine, I don’t need your help”?

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14 miss tyneal December 1, 2010 at 10:28 pm

You have made a very good point. The teacher does not see herself as a disciplinarian; therefore, sees no need for rewards. We have a new student in our district in need of intense behavior interventions. The gen ed classroom lacked discipline and structure. The teacher has become stronger and stricter by sticking to the consequences stated. However, still not sold on rewards or much of behavior management strategy.

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15 Greg McMullen December 1, 2010 at 12:28 pm

This is fantastic. As a coach, I struggle every day to find the motivating factors that will work for a variety of high school athletes. It’s also rather difficult to find the right balance between reward/discipline. However, as the season is progressing I’m finding myself better able to understand who is motivated by what and what those things are.

In short, I absolutely agree that rewards are necessary but should be utilized responsibly. Can’t wait for the next one!

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16 Angela Watson December 1, 2010 at 10:10 pm

Thanks, Greg, for your perspective. I like your point about balancing reward and discipline. I might blog on that soon.

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17 Greg McMullen December 1, 2010 at 10:56 pm

It’s not only the balancing of rewards and discipline though. It’s also finding that individual’s best way to be rewarded. Each person has their own motivating factors. In my experience getting a faster time was my reward, but for others it might just be finishing a practice without stopping.

I thoroughly enjoyed this post and look forward to coming back.

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18 Aimee December 3, 2010 at 10:09 am

I agree 100% with this post. As a school psychologist, I’m constantly dealing with children with behavior or academic problems who do need an extra incentive or reinforcement (even in my grad classes I was told to avoid the word “reward”) to act in the way that the school “says” they should. I constantly reiterate the mantra of my mentor, “What’s fair is not always equal. What’s equal is not always fair.” My job is to even the playing field for all students to access their education. If that means that Johnny gets a free homework pass at the end of the week for completing all his homework, it’s not the end of the world. Not every student learns or is motivated the same way, and school staff should recognize and adjust themselves and/or their teaching to accommodate all students.

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19 Paul Hawking February 7, 2011 at 9:11 am

I forget where I read it, but the idea of “currency” has had a real impact on my reward system, meaning that in order to get students to do what I want that’s out of my control, I need to provide something that’s of value to them. For example, I want my students to do homework every night, the students want to listen to their ipods after the lesson, so anyone who did last night’s homework can listen to their ipod at the end of class. I usually give them the first week for free, the second week they get to earn it daily, and the beginning of the third week it goes to 3 out of 5 days: students who completed 3 out of 5 of the homework assignments from last week get to listen to music all this week. After that, it goes to weekly: students who completed all of the homework assignments from last week get to listen to music all this week.

Your post is wonderful and it’s made me realize that I need to incorporate more “surprise” rewards into my reward system.

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20 Angela Watson February 7, 2011 at 10:16 am

Hi, Paul. I’ve heard of the ‘currency’ idea (and like you, can’t remember where it came from!) and it makes a lot of sense. Many times what we as teachers think is valuable is far less meaningful to kids. The iPod idea is really great–it’s free and requires no effort on your part, yet the kids see it as a huge privilege. Thanks for sharing.

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21 Gretchen December 29, 2011 at 1:37 pm

Bah-humbug for all those anti-reward people. Geez. Take all the FUN out of life. If a child will work harder when they are motivated, use it towards your advantage. They might as well learn while they’re working towards a reward. I’m so annoyed with that science facilitator. Thank you for the update! All I can say is…KARMA. don’t judge so harshly, you may be in that same position some day! My oh my did that happen.

I couldn’t help but laugh (hey, you’re sarcastic and it’s entertaining!) when you joked that students are supposed to give 100% because they just happen to have strongly developed intrinsic motivation. Santa wouldn’t receive as many letters each year convincing him they were good because this that or the other thing! I also chuckled at your reference to our students deriving pleasure from EVERY one of our lessons/tasks. A reward never hurt anybody. It takes the edge off. The little things in life keep you in the game Rewards teach goal setting and encourages the development of drive and ambition- qualities of a mature, motivated citizen.

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22 Angela Watson January 4, 2012 at 1:20 am

Well said, Gretchen! :-)

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