For a while now, I’ve been questioning the use of positive reward and merit systems in my class and in my school. I’ve used them for years, developing and promoting their use in school for behaviour modification, classroom management and as a whole school strategy to encourage desirable behaviours and values. But lately I’ve been feeling increasingly uneasy.
There have always been some concerns:
- We want our students to be intrinsically motivated, rather than working for reward.
- If we start to reward desirable behaviours such as picking up rubbish, does that mean students will only do it if they are rewarded?
- There seems to be a lack of fairness – often less compliant students seem to earn more rewards – the moment we catch them doing the right thing, we provide a reinforcement to try to encourage that positive behaviour, whereas more compliant students exhibit the same behaviours with no reward.
- The scarcity issue – we can’t reward all positive behaviours all the time or it devalues the rewards. Therefore, we build in scarcity and ration the number of awards we give, which means some students miss out when they have exhibited the same behaviours as those who were awarded.
At my school it is further complicated by the fact we have a whole school token reward program. Teachers give out tokens for positive behaviours. When the student accrues ten of these, they earn a merit award. Ten merits lead to a higher award and as they continue earning, they achieve further awards of increasing value.
This leads to issues such as:
- lack of consistency between teachers. Students in one class may receive many more than students in another.
- parental anxiety and teacher stress. If a parent perceives that their child has not received enough tokens there will often be a call to the principal, or a meeting with the teacher. There is usually the suggestion that the teacher is not encouraging the students enough.
But on the flip side we’ve seen many positive benefits:
- successful* behaviour modification programs
- successful* classroom management programs
- the opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate students’ effort, values and citizenship. All our students are able to earn awards, not just those who are particularly talented in academic, artistic or sporting endeavours.
*While these programs certainly appear successful, Alfie Kohn’s research in his book ‘Punished by Rewards’ would suggest that the positive effects are short term.
In 2012 I had a dream Year 2 class. Almost every one of my students were intrinsically motivated. They LOVED coming to school and engaging in learning. They enjoyed exploring, experimenting with and discussing ideas. They willingly reflected on their learning, and set themselves goals which they liked working towards. They didn’t need token rewards to encourage good work or effort.
They were also a very compliant class, willing to cooperate with me and each other. They worked well as a team and didn’t need tokens to encourage cooperation or sharing.
This made it rather difficult to decide what I should be giving the tokens for. I had to give them out because they fed into our whole school system, but I struggled with it. The tokens were tied to the school merit system, they had to be rationed to around 5 per day.
How could I choose 5 students for an award and leave the others?
I tried all sorts of things such as:
- catching the first 5 students who were ‘ready’, helping or doing something positive.
- keeping a secret list and crossing off the names of students who were behaving inappropriately – I only crossed off one name though.
- asking students to set their own targets, and earn a token when they had achieved it.
- catching 5 students a day who showed improvement in their work
- randomly giving out 5 each day and just ensuring that different students received them each day
I wasn’t happy with these approaches. Choosing 5 students each day who were doing something positive seemed unfair to the other well-behaved students. Giving them out to students who kept their name on a list seemed a punishment to those who missed out. Goal setting and showing improvement was better, but it was hard to manage, and the students ended up getting fewer awards than before. The random distribution of tokens just seemed pointless.
But my biggest concern of all was that my students didn’t need these tokens. They were highly motivated by the intrinsic rewards of what they were doing. My students were motivated by their love of learning, the excitement of new discoveries and ideas, by the pleasure of being part of a happy, harmonious class community. Giving them a little token seemed to cheapen that. It took their attention away from what was truly important, and onto measuring their value by the amount of tokens they collected.
Last year I blogged about a student of mine who in one week was selected as a class spokesperson for the school open day, was given a public blog – the first child in our school to be given that opportunity, and had spent special mentoring sessions with me to develop her writing. The same week her mother complained to the principal that she had not received many tokens and was worried her daughter was not being encouraged enough.
So what really is the lesson that our students and their parents are learning from our positive award systems?
To explore this idea further, this holidays I’m reading ‘Punished by Rewards’ by Alfie Kohn. I expect I’ll be blogging some more about it soon.