The Problem with Merit Systems

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.



8 thoughts on “The Problem with Merit Systems

  1. Every school creates its own culture – some choose to ‘reward’ students and some don’t. I wonder whether the students themselves could debate the issue? I’ve never used reward systems myself, and it doesn’t sound as though you care for them either. Of course what’s really important is that the students enjoy coming to school and that they love to learn – rewards or no rewards – which yours clearly do. Getting rid of a rewards system can be tricky unless the majority – teachers, parents and students – agree that the system is unnecessary, irritating, time consuming, counter-productive, etc. A long-term intention to change the culture of the school could be very beneficial if, through talking through all the issues, every member of the school’s community has an opportunity to re-assess the main aims of education (which surely don’t include collecting rewards points and coercing students to behave well) and the basic intentions of the school. I’m pretty sure you’d end up with an agreement that decent behaviour should be seen as the norm and that it needs no rewards, and that improper behaviour should be tackled as and when it arises, and should be seen as an opportunity to focus on personal, social and emotional learning.

    I’ll look forward to your review of the Cohn book. My suggestions for holiday reading for teachers would include The New Learning Revolution by Gordon Dryden and Jeanette Vos, Pedagogy of Freedom by Paulo Freire and The Element by Ken Robinson. For a great novel, try Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, and for great page-turning storytelling try the Millenium trilogy by Stieg Larsson.
    Happy holidays!

  2. Hi GF and thanks for commenting. Kohn’s book outlines a huge body of research that says rewards can actually have a negative effect – they motivate in the short term, but in the long term actually de-motivate people for various reasons.

    But getting rid of merit systems is completely counter intuitive for most people and would require a massive change in mindset for the students, parents and the teachers, so that isn’t a realistic aim at this stage.

    In fact, I’m not sure I want to get rid of rewards altogether. I’m not sure that they don’t have a place.

    What I do want to do is gain a far better understanding of motivation – and see what adjustments can be made to improve our system.

    Kohn has suggestions for how to do this which I’ll put in a later post – too much to write down here.

    Thanks for the reading suggestions. I haven’t read any of those books, but they sound good.

  3. WANSTAD73 says:

    Hi Corinne,
    Agree with you re our need to develop in our kids intrinsic motivation for their behaviour and learning. I wonder if we can we do that externally? How – continued encouragement rather than praise? Never been a carrot/stick fan myself. I’m fascinated if the whole badges/levels idea in GBL has similar merit – it seems to motivate intrinsically, but I still think only short term.

    • Hi Wanstad, thank you for commenting.
      I was wondering the same thing about game based learning. The GBL concept appeals to me in many ways, but again – it takes the focus away from the intrinsic rewards of whatever is being learned. Students perhaps become motivated by the game, not by the process of learning itself.

  4. Great post. So what did you think of the book. I read it a while ago along with a number of other research into extrinsic and intrinsic motivations. I am head of a school and we have not used any sort of token reward system for the past 3 years. Teachers were horrified at the thought and wondered how we could cope. 3 years later and our children appear to be very well intrinsically motivated, we have almost no issues with behaviour and children as young as 3 talk about their learning without any reference to stickers, gold stars or merits.
    I am currently doing an MEd and have recently read some very interesting articles that make the case that extrinsic rewards may be OK if used to help intrinsic motivation! My dissertation will be around the issues of motivation (perhaps looking at any differences for boys and girls too).

    • Hi David, your thesis sounds like fascinating research.

      I loved Alfie Kohn’s book. It helped make sense of the contradictions I was seeing around rewards and consequence systems and I’ve changes a lot of what I do as a result.

      I did share his research with my school executive but, at this stage have been unable to effect any change beyond my classroom. It’s interesting: we are so conditioned into this way of thinking, that suggesting it may not be effective and can even be counter productive seems almost heretical for some people.

  5. Corne Lotter says:

    Hi, forgive any mistakes…English is my second language and I think in Afrikaans (Dutch dialect spoken in South Africa). I’m teaching at an Afrikaans speaking school so thinking in English isn’t high on my list on any given day. My school is thinking of starting to use a merit/demerit system as we have much trouble with children misbehaving, not doing their work, breaking rules, etc. This system is however something totally new for us and we have no example of a system to follow. I have to manage it during certain periods next year…Up to now we basically focused on the bad stuff (easiest to see?) and we wrote all the wrong doings into a file. Three notes meant a “Sorry but”-letter home and three of these meant detention. Many of our pupils sat detention on Fridays (detention is hated by all teachers on duty as this only steals our time and the kids think it was a joke). Some kids even had to sit Saturday-detention in full uniform after three Friday-detentions and even this did nothing to improve their attitude, etc. The good kids just went on in life each week without being thanked or rewarded or being recognized for the good they did or for the good kids they were. Sometimes a teacher would say “thank you” to them or complement those doing good in tests, but for most being good people didn’t mean anything. The bad ones however also just went on with their bad stuff, often drawing some of the good ones down with them…like a rotten tomato. How do we get that rotten tomato to change into a beautiful juicy red one?

    Any suggestion? Any schools’ merit systems I can look into during our summer holiday that started today?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s