Editor's note: This column is written by High School English teacher Jerry Heverly. Its tag line is inspired by education blogger Joe Bower who says that when his students do an experiment, learning is the priority. Getting the correct answer is entirely secondary.)
Our school has a rewards program. Each month has a theme: honesty, kindness, that sort of thing. The folks who run the program supply me with certificates.
If I catch a student exhibiting the desired behavior I’m to give the student one of the certificates. These forms are collected and entered in a monthly drawing. Winners get prizes.
The intent is clear. Improve student behavior by rewarding those who behave properly.
Anything that would improve the behavior of our students I would whole-heartedly embrace.
I hate this program. I confess that I chuck those certificates in the trash as quickly as I receive them. Explaining why I find this program so repugnant is not easy. The simplest thing I can say is that I’ve been convinced by what I’ve read and experienced in my life that the more you reward a person for doing something, the less interest the person will have in doing that very thing.
Put another way: rewards destroy intrinsic motivation.
I could spend the next 400 words quoting learned experts on student motivation.
I could point you to a great writer, Alfie Kohn, whose book Punished by Rewards should be on the bookshelf of any leader, teacher, or administrator.
I’d rather let my friend Joe Bower speak to you. A few weeks ago Joe, a middle school teacher in Canada and parent of a young daughter named Kayley, wrote something about this issue that I thought was more compelling and more intelligent than anything I could hope to write.
I decided that just this once it would be honorable to let someone else speak for me:
Daddy I want a book buck!
Most nights before bed, Kayley and I read together. Because she's 5, I typically do the majority of the reading to her; however, she's learning to read by looking at the pictures and watching and listening to me read. She's also starting to identify a couple words like her name. And even more importantly, Kayley already loves to read.
When I ask her if she wants to read with me, she almost always says, "yes", and when I ask her why she wants to read with me, she almost always says "because its fun!"
From the beginning, we've worked really hard to inspire a love for reading with Kayley by stocking our house full of books, modeling reading for our own enjoyment and reading to and with her almost every day, especially before bed.
But something changed.
Last night I asked, "Kayley do you want to read before bed time?"
She said, "Yes," and added, "I want a book buck."
I asked, "What's a book buck?"
She said, "If I read 5 books, I get 5 book bucks at school."
I asked, "Why do you want book bucks?"
"Because I get toys."
I decided to let this go for the moment, so we could read the book she brought from school. While I read, I could tell that she really enjoyed it. She got excited during the exciting parts and nervous during the nervous parts. We both smiled and laughed while we made our way through the book.
When we were done, I asked, "Did you like that book?"
"Why did you like it?"
"Because I'm going to get a book buck! Did you like it, daddy?"
"Why did you like it, dad?"
"I liked it because it was fun and we spent time together reading."
"Dad, I'm going to get a book buck, and I'll get one for you, too."
She went to bed.
Joe’s blog is called “For the Love of Learning” and can be found at http://www.joebower.org.
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