Classroom Leadership: Rewards Are Like Crack

When I set up my classroom as a first-year teacher, I created a daily game system where students would compete Jeopardy-style, for intellectual dominance. The winning groups would receive candy bars. I also added a Spencer Store, with photocopied artificial money bearing my face (think Shrute Bucks from The Office) and a dollar amount. I also created a PAT time system that Fred Jones had recommended.

It worked. For a week. Then kids started complaining that the game wasn't fun and that the candy bars weren't enough. So, I upped the ante a little. The students were right. Fun size candy bars? Two bites and they were gone. What's the fun in that? So, I moved to full-size bars and eventually king-sized candy bars.  PAT time failed, too, because it made more sense to be disruptive for a full hour than to behave in boredom for two days before earning twenty minutes of free-time. Finally, the Spencer Store had a sudden inflation problem, as students engaged in counterfeiting and began trading services for Spencer Cash.

It wasn't that the system had failed. I had created extrinsic rewards based upon economic norms and the students, for their part, had become excellent consumers. They gamed the system so that they could do as little possible for the biggest reward.

Brad the Philosopher told me at the time, "Rewards are like crack. They raise the energy and they seem to work great. Then, they crash and the low is worse than it had been before. The only solution is a new fix and that new fix requires a higher reward. There's a lot of reward junkies out there."

It had me thinking about the world's greatest teachers. None of them used rewards. Socrates didn't pass out pizza coupons (or perhaps pita coupons). Jesus didn't offer to turn water into wine if his disciples would just stop squabbling and start getting along. Instead, they were motivated by purpose, meaning, creativity, and fun.

My son came home with a packet explaining his school's behavioral management system, filled with PAT time and Roadrunner dollars and cards that you pull if you're bad (creating a literal scarlet letter right next to the board if you suck at sitting still and keeping your math shut). The letter implored us to participate in a similar system at home. I tossed


Why Rewards Fail
The following are a few reasons why rewards fail:
  • Students cheat 
  • Students no longer cooperate. 
  • Students become risk-averse
  • Students lose the desire to learn 

Rewards vs. Recognition
When I first saw the damage of punishments and rewards, I scaled back anything that felt teacher-centered or judgment-based. So, I quit throwing pizza parties when the class achieved a goal. I quit writing positive notes to send home. However, I failed to recognize the nuance in intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. It's not always as easy as a binary either/or option.

Recognition is not the same as a reward. Recognition is a celebration of what someone has done after the fact rather than an incentive for doing something. People need to be affirmed for what they have done and for who they are. Simply saying that all people should be internally driven at all times fails to grasp the interdependency of human relationships.

There is nothing wrong with sending a thank you card after someone gives a wedding present. After all, no one would say, "I bought that person a gift so I could get a card." There is nothing dangerous about celebrating graduation with going out for dinner. There is nothing wrong with sending a friend a card with affirmations about who that person is and why they matter.

Too often, students go through schooling without being affirmed. When a teacher sends a positive note affirming the identity and character of a student, it can be a powerful recognition that the child is not alone in this world. When a teacher celebrates the collective actions of a class, it can be a chance to say, "We did something amazing and I'm grateful for your hard work."

The key with recognition is that it has to be genuine, after the fact and expressed in a way that doesn't pit students against one another.

Okay, There's Actually Some Nuance 
In Drive, Daniel Pink describes the times when rewards and punishments work. These tend to be short-term and boring, rote-based skills. For example, during high-stakes testing week, when it is unnatural and unfair to ask students to sit silently for hours taking a drill-and-kill test, a teacher might say:

"I will never reward you for reading a book. Reading is rewarding. You need to find a genre that you connect with and you'll see what I mean. I won't reward you for solving complex problems. Problem-solving is fun. However, sitting silently for hours during a test is brutal. I get that. I would hate to be in your shoes right now. So, if you stay quiet the entire time, we'll have some free time at the end of the day."

It's important that students know exactly why a reward is being used and that the teacher explicitly describes why this task is boring and not intrinsically motivating. It is also important that the teacher ups the ante each day, given the fact that rewards lose their power over time.

Teachers need to be cautious, even in situations like this. If it is possible to find something intrinsically beneficial in a task, it is best to keep the motivation intrinsic. For example, it may not be fun to keep a classroom clean, but a clean classroom is intrinsically rewarding. A difficult math problem might be frustrating, but it is still rewarding when one finally conquers it.

What This Means
  • Find ways to provide feedback rather than rewards, with regards to both behavior and learning. Focus on a meaningful dialogue with students and engage them in the act of reflection.  
  • Use rewards sparingly and realize that they eventually fail. 
  • Recognition is still important. Recognition can be powerful if it is reflective (What did you notice about that? How did you feel about it? What challenges did you overcome? What are your strengths?) or if it affirms a student's identity. I send birthday cards and I do an end-of-the-year "What I noticed about you" note with adjectives from classmates and a positive note from me.
  • Incorporate intrinsic motivation by making tasks meaningful, giving students autonomy, honoring the identity of students, engaging in critical thinking and integrating creativity into daily learning. 


John Spencer is a teacher, author, speaker, and incessant doodler.
He is the co-author of Wendell the World's Worst Wizard
and the co-founder of Write About .

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