We have created a monster. When I say “we” I mean educators and our school system, including myself. I realized this in a huge way when recently working with a grade 5/6 class in my school. The rewards system we have created as a school system needs to be deeply looked at and reconsidered. As an educator, I believe it is now our responsibility to try and work to make it better.
With the information that we have now, we know that a rewards system does not improve or promote creativity. It also does more to extinguish internal motivation, than promote it. If you have never read the book “Drive” by Dan Pink (which I have promoted several times on my blog), you should. Although the book is an excellent read, it also just seems to be such common sense. It is not directly related to education, as it is more about business, but it definitely is not hard to connect the two. Books and information like this were not as readily available to my teachers and parents, and from what they knew, the carrot and the stick were the best way to promote motivation.
I was a heavy child. Sports were something that I were never really good at although I did have a love for them. My first team sport that I ever played was hockey (which is almost required if you live in Canada!) and needless to say, I was not very skilled. I tried so hard and wanted to be good, but being heavy and not having the hand-eye coordination that is needed, I did not do very well. My parents knew this was something that I wanted to badly improve in, so they set up a reward system for me that they believed would work.
This is how it worked; for every goal I scored in the game, my parents would give me some type of reward. Sometimes it was money and sometimes it was (not kidding) hamburgers. My parents knew I loved food and thought that there was no better motivator for me! This was something I was very excited for and I felt motivated me. In games, I still remember thinking that the more I scored, the more food I would get! I worked so hard to score goals and to the detriment of my team, I would park myself in front of the net, and wait for the opportunity for the puck to come to me so I could hammer it home. In the short term, I did seem to improve. My goal production improved dramatically. I did not work to develop any other skills like skating or passing, but I did score my goals. I remember actually arguing with my mom one day that because I scored three goals, she did owe me three hamburgers. I had no idea why she was so reluctant but obviously realized that she knew how this would affect my overall health. Three hamburgers is probably a little much for an eight year old, but a deal was a deal. This put my parents in a conundrum and the awards system was quickly scrapped. Needless to say that I did not care to play hockey anymore and I quit soon after.
I do not fault my parents for this system at all as they are the most wonderful people in the world and doing whatever they could to motivate me. They looked for a way to try and help me to not only get better at hockey, but alleviate some of my frustration with not being very good in the first place. It was common knowledge at the time that awards would lead to improved performance, but revisiting my own experience, it taught me how to only earn the award. I did not become a better hockey player and most importantly, I actually became a WORSE teammate. I learned that if I did certain things I could earn the reward without actually getting any better at the sport. The short time reward did nothing to help with lifelong goals.
As I grew older, I played basketball and my parents did not need to motivate me at all. I loved the sport and I appreciated my parents recognizing me and encouraging me to do better, but I did not play for that reason. I played because I loved it and I worked hard because I wanted to get better. This has helped me into my adulthood where physical activity is something that I enjoy doing and have run a few marathons. I love being active yet do not get any external award for my activity. It is just something I enjoy.
Coming full circle
Recently I received an email from a teacher whose class came up with a great initiative. They wanted to promote a healthy lifestyle for students in the school and were encouraging students to run laps around the school during their lunch recess. They were going to Google Map the results and show the distance that each class traveled in relation from the school and display the progress of the school in our front display case. As I am reading the email, I am thinking, “Wow…this is a great idea!” The students are taking leadership in the school by promoting physical activity, incorporating technology into physical activity, and recognizing our school for its shared success. Then came the problem.
At the end of the email, I was asked if at the end of the initiative, if the school would sponsor buying pizza for the class that went the furthest. Quickly my mind went back to the hamburgers for goal experiment from my childhood. Promoting healthy activity by rewarding with food is something that would not work. I shared with the teacher that the reward is counterproductive to the goal of the project, and suggested that perhaps a day at a local pool may be a suitable reward. She agreed with me, and told me that the students suggested the pizza thing because they could not think of a suitable reward for the success of the classroom.
As I thought more about the project, the pool reward was also not something that I believed would promote long term health. I decided that I would talk with the students about this process and if we could figure something out as a group. I went into the classroom and we talked about how the idea was fantastic . We also talked about the goals of the project. The students shared with me that the goal was to “promote a healthier lifestyle for students in the school.” I commended them for such an honourable goal. When we talked about the reward for the goal, we all realized that this was promoting short term success. If students were to get an award for the month they participated, why would they continue after the end of the project? It also said that even if your participated, there could only be ONE class that won, although all classes participated.
The students still were unsure if having NO reward would be beneficial. They clearly admitted (and I concurred) that many believed that awards were what drove people to do things. They were worried that if there was no “carrot” at the end of project, no one would participate. I have often said that the “carrot” is kind of shaped like a stick and sometimes when we use it as an award for one person, it turns into the stick for the rest.
Needles to say that this system was something that they had learned from the world is something we created. This was not something they were born with, but they were taught this in part from our education system. I encouraged them to talk about it as a class and that I would support whatever decision they made, but they should really think about trying this project without the award. With a wonderful teacher guiding them, they decided to give it a try WITHOUT the award at the end.
As the students put their project into place, it was amazing to see the response from our school. Students are taking part in the exercise initiative and are checking their progress every day outside of my office. I will admit that I have poked fun at the students about how they did not really need the reward at the end to engage the students in the project (they are sick of seeing me and joking about it). The project could not be going any better and our grade 5/6 students will be talking about the success of each class at the end of the month in our student assembly. This was a great opportunity for me to learn along with the students and realize that we do not need awards to motivate our kids, but they can do amazing things without them.
As educators, with the knowledge we have about awards systems, we need to take opportunities like this to make our schools a better place that promote intrinsic instead of extrinsic motivation. If our goal as schools are to promote lifelong learning, how are we promoting it with short term rewards? Helping students find their passion, recognizing them (without rewards) when they do well, encouraging them to do better, making curriculum relevant to their lives and guiding them in their learning can help them with this long term goal. Focusing them on short term success (honour rolls, doing well on standardized tests, etc.) in many ways is detrimental to creating lifelong learners.
It is our responsibility to look at long term goals for students and how our awards system is counterproductive to long term success. We created the system and now we need to correct it.