Thursday, March 1, 2012

Let's Eliminate Rewards (From Our Lexicon)

There is no way to achieve educational excellence in a school where purposes are blurred 
(Ernest Boyer)

     Some of the best conversations I've engaged in lately center around the topic of rewards. A recent blog ( by Dr. Richard Curwin brought the topic to the fore once again. Curwin's writing has been influential throughout my career and is reflected in my beliefs on this topic so it was refreshing to see how he frames some of the debate. More on that later in this post. His post also resonated with colleague and co-author Chris Weber (@Chi_educate). We've tried to strike the right balance in our book ( that speaks to the realities we face in schools today. Chris suggested that he is never going "to use the word 'rewards' again" because rewards are conditional (if you do this, then you'll get that). His intent is instead to "catch students being good" because that's "appreciation". The challenge posed by Boyer's quote above is that we need to have a degree of consistency across the school that is borne out of reflective dialogue amongst the educators.

     These common expectations are more than just rules; they create a vision of the end we have in mind and reflect core values. They should reflect the notion that we ought to spend more time on the positive reinforcement of appropriate behaviors than on the identification of negative ones. Curwin talks about this as showing appreciation. His belief is that "we have a responsibility and obligation as teachers to evaluate students' academic performance and behavior." How we do these evaluations and what we do with the information we gain are the critical pieces. Curwin speaks to the difference "between manipulating students to behave in a certain way by giving them things when they comply, and expressing true feelings of appreciation for something well done." His views differ in this regard from other luminaries like Kohn and Glasser who suggest this is still tantamount  to influencing behavior to get students to do what we want. Curwin suggests that "No one can work hard without validation, appreciation, being noticed or being thanked"and supports this type of feedback "as long as these things don't have a price tag attached." I know how hard educators work and I fully believe we deserve recognition for it. There is a difference between manipulating someone by offering rewards that are conditional and pre-determined, and appreciating someone after they have displayed appropriate behavior. Rewards are part of a system while appreciation comes from the heart.

     Curwin also speaks about the importance of having appropriate levels of challenge for our students as a better option than any form of reward for increasing motivation. He poses a question that resonated with me. Given the option of engaging in a game with an opponent, would you choose the person who you routinely beat or the person to whom you have routinely lost but been close each time? Not surprisingly most people choose the latter option. And so it is with our students. It is important to find the right level of challenge as too easy builds little pride, and in some instances resentment, (think of the student who completes the assigned questions early and is given more of the same) and too hard leads to frustration and withdrawal. In our technology impacted world, video games may offer some insight. Students who engage in these go to the level that best meets their ability and continue until they master that level. Of course if we attached rewards to completing a level, many would opt for an easier level. When students are given the opportunity to make personal meaning of the expectations they are more likely to internalize them and achieve desirable outcomes.  

     Curwin's third point is one that really resonates with me. He speaks about the importance of getting to know your students and showing genuine care for their welfare. He suggests we think about teachers that impacted us and to recall why they did and the feelings associated with those memories. In "Pyramids of Behavior Interventions" we list both the positive and negative recollections many adults have shared with us about teachers who impacted them. Here's the list:


Cared about me as an individual
Brought learning to life, made it real
Took extra time to help me learn
Always fair, reasonable & understanding
Inspired me to do my best


Did not know me or care about me
Made the subject dry and boring
Often unfair or arbitrary
Yelled, screamed, put kids down
Seemed more interested in the subject than the kids

As Curwin states, "Can any reward or bribe come close to these feelings as motivators?" I know the genuine emotion that occurs when people share these stories with me and it reminds me of the significant impact we have day by day and minute by minute on our students. Curwin's final comment is an ideal summary. "I always remember that I teach for them, they don't learn for me." It's time to eliminate "rewards" and speak more to "acknowledging" and "appreciating" the demonstrated behaviors our students are displaying. 


  1. Acknowledging and feedback are so important... as long as they are not given out as "if... then" or as a reward. The topic of praise is one that I have been reflecting a lot about. I understand Dweck's concept of praising effort vs ability but we need to be careful of how we use praise, acknowledgment, and appreciation. As you said, it needs to be genuine and not tied to anything about getting someone to do what WE want.

    Always a good topic! Thanks for keeping this dialogue going, buddy.

    1. Thanks Chris. I agree that it's the implications of the "if...then" approach that complicates the issue. We all need to ensure that we try to steer clear of manipulative devices or language as we work WITH students to ensure appropirate outcomes are achieved.

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  3. I guess it depends upon the theoretical framework within which you are viewing/defining rewards. If this is just a discussion of semantic choice because of what is conjured in one's own mind, that is fine too. From an educational standpoint, the idea of reward/reinforcement is not as simple as if-then. For a student, from a behaviorist standpoint, it's all if-then. From that standpoint, you are really discussing meaningful ifs and meaningful thens that will hopefully have a lasting influence.

    This whole conversation would make for a nice live discussion somewhere. Nice to see it kept on the forefront.


    1. Thanks Dr. Timony. I think you've hit the nail on the head with the analysis that it boils down to "meaningful". Ultimately that is what we should be striving for in order for the impact of our actions to have a lasting influence. Would love to see the topic as a Twitter chat and any other suitable format.