Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Rewards in Education

Every teacher in every school has faced the challenge of motivating students.  Some of our learners are easy - they seem to motivate themselves.  Others are not so easy - seeming to "dare" us to make them care about what they are learning.  The problem is perhaps even more visible in congregational religious schools.  We are asking our students to learn things that by no stretch of their imaginations add any value  to their lives (aside from the value of Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebrations and presents).

What are we to do?

According to a recently published book - "Drive" - by Daniel Pink, we have good reason to think carefully about how we respond to student effort and achievement.  According the the research he describes, rewards may be counterproductive - students come to value the reward over the accomplishment, and to demand ever bigger and more costly rewards for their work.  An article in the NY Times about the book explains his thinking.

This is not a new idea.  Alfie Kohn, a well-known educational thinker, has long been writing about the negative aspects of reward, as you can see by reading his articles about the subject on his website.

For those who struggle with motivating a group of students, or with responding to disruptive classroom behaviors, this may sound at best idealistic and at worst impossible.  After all, what's wrong with a few chocolate kisses if they lead to better performance and improved behavior?

Here are a few links to articles which may suggest alternatives:

  • Education World Professional Professional Development Channel provides links to a variety of resources on reward
  • One Question a Day is an article that describes one school that decided to experiment with making reward more intrinsic than extrinsic by inviting students to answer questions about their behavior in different situations.
  • Rewarding Systems is an examination of the advantages and disadvantages of both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards, and concludes that there are points to be made in favor of each, but with cautions about both that should be noted.
As usual, the challenges are many, the solutions varied, and the decisions to a certain extent personal.  The most important thing is to learn as much as we can - from both research and experience - and to use what we learn thoughtfully and responsibly.  


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