How do you guys feel about incentives? It’s a tough one, right? And it’s tough because for immediate & short term behavior change rewards do work! “If you sit quietly, I’ll give you candy!” “If you finish your homework during study hall, you’ll get a ticket and can pick something from the treasure chest.” “If you read X amount you’ll get a pizza coupon!.” This strategy is used FAR and WIDE to motivate kids to do the things we think are best for them. In fact, building incentive plans for schools and districts was a big part of my job before I started CREA.

But, in the spirit of looking a little closer, I started asking — what does the research say and what are the long term implication of this approach?

Here’s what I learned from Alfie Kohn’s book “The Punishment of Rewards,” in which he reviews the breadth of research on this topic.

  • Rewards work when it comes to immediate compliance. They are effective for short term behavior manipulation.
  • Rewards don’t work in the long term AND are actually counterproductive in creating lasting behavior change.
  • Rewards are counterproductive because of the underlying messaging: this behavior is only desirable to the extent that it is rewarded. In other words: this behavior is inherently undesirable! The result is that when the reward is gone kids are actually LESS inclined to engage in the rewarded behavior or activity than they were before the reward was introduced. SO the extrinsic motivator actually dampens our existing intrinsic motivation, and it is most damaging when the task is already intrinsically motivating (ex: if the child already loves to read.)
  • Rewards are counterproductive because the behavior change disappears when the reward is no longer there! So, as teachers, we are in a position to up the ante on our incentives to keep the behavior going which is unsustainable and exhausting!
  • Rewards are especially harmful for encouraging creative thought! Rewards discourage risk taking and out-of-the-box thinking.

Incentives are so core to the way schools work, so this is not something to change overnight! But, start by noticing the beliefs that are at the root of the incentives in your school. What do these incentives say about your school’s beliefs about kids and the tasks they are being asked to do?

So, what’s the alternative? Alfie Kohn talks about the 3 Cs of motivation:

Content: has the child been given something worth learning?

Community: Is the learning cooperative? does the child feel part of a safe learning environment? where they can ask for help?

Choice: Are kids given opportunities to think about what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, and why?

 

This is how we change the young peoples beliefs and attitudes about learning tasks at the deeper level, a level that lasts long after they leave our classrooms and the sticker charts and incentives plans are gone.

How do you guys feel about incentives? It’s a tough one, right? And it’s tough because for immediate & short term behavior change rewards do work! “If you sit quietly, I’ll give you candy!” “If you finish your homework during study hall, you’ll get a ticket and can pick something from the treasure chest.” “If you read X amount you’ll get a pizza coupon!.” This strategy is used FAR and WIDE to motivate kids to do the things we think are best for them. In fact, building incentive plans for schools and districts was a big part of my job before I started CREA.

But, in the spirit of looking a little closer, I started asking — what does the research say and what are the long term implication of this approach?

Here’s what I learned from Alfie Kohn’s book “The Punishment of Rewards,” in which he reviews the breadth of research on this topic.

  • Rewards work when it comes to immediate compliance. They are effective for short term behavior manipulation.
  • Rewards don’t work in the long term AND are actually counterproductive in creating lasting behavior change.
  • Rewards are counterproductive because of the underlying messaging: this behavior is only desirable to the extent that it is rewarded. In other words: this behavior is inherently undesirable! The result is that when the reward is gone kids are actually LESS inclined to engage in the rewarded behavior or activity than they were before the reward was introduced. SO the extrinsic motivator actually dampens our existing intrinsic motivation, and it is most damaging when the task is already intrinsically motivating (ex: if the child already loves to read.)
  • Rewards are counterproductive because the behavior change disappears when the reward is no longer there! So, as teachers, we are in a position to up the ante on our incentives to keep the behavior going which is unsustainable and exhausting!
  • Rewards are especially harmful for encouraging creative thought! Rewards discourage risk taking and out-of-the-box thinking.

Incentives are so core to the way schools work, so this is not something to change overnight! But, start by noticing the beliefs that are at the root of the incentives in your school. What do these incentives say about your school’s beliefs about kids and the tasks they are being asked to do?

So, what’s the alternative? Alfie Kohn talks about the 3 Cs of motivation:

Content: has the child been given something worth learning?

Community: Is the learning cooperative? does the child feel part of a safe learning environment? where they can ask for help?

Choice: Are kids given opportunities to think about what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, and why?

 

This is how we change the young peoples beliefs and attitudes about learning tasks at the deeper level, a level that lasts long after they leave our classrooms and the sticker charts and incentives plans are gone.