Why a pupil's hard work should be its own reward

Schools extol virtues like humility, respect and community as intrinsic qualities that are developed within students. We should have the same aim for the value of hard work

Dillon Wolfe

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“The children at our school are respectful, charitable and responsible: all lifelong qualities fit for learning and citizenship.”

A variation on the above is usually seen on most international school websites.

These same students will also be humble, charitable and honest – all intrinsic virtuous actions that are good in themselves and seek or expect no reward to make them so; it’s just the right way to be.

The issue with praising hard work

Does hard work have a place among these virtues? I align myself with Carol Dweck in Mindset when she eschewed commending measurable outcomes in favour of rewarding the effort.

However, should we be tangibly rewarding hard work, or should it be a virtuous action like respect or honesty?  

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In practical terms, of course, we should incentivise our students to act "good" in the classroom, and a measure of this is working hard.

It’s just a reality of classroom management. You may or may not know it, but as a teacher, you will most likely utilise behaviourist psychology to bend your students to your will to promote good classroom and learning behaviours.

Behaviourism refers to a branch of experimental psychology that places importance on learning through association rather than cognition (which relies more on logical structures).

Behaviourism is the brand leader and therefore most recognisable technique for disciplining and modifying child behaviour. Of behaviourism’s product range, one of the most popular is "operant conditioning", or positive and negative reinforcement.

Only praising positive outcomes?

This is the one in which good deeds are rewarded and bad deeds punished. Only children who are good get ice cream. If you keep picking your nose, your brains will fall out. If the wind changes, it’ll stay that way forever. If you work hard, you’ll get a certificate.

However, if we place a work ethic as a rewardable act and we associate learning through that consequence, it somehow makes its intrinsic nature, its virtuous essence, contingent on an extrinsic reward. 

As a teacher with small group of students with special educational needs or English as an additional language, I have often observed that a high proportion of my students sought an extrinsic reward or the promise of a reward to engage in sustained hard work. I would describe these students as extrinsically motivated.

Extrinsic motivation is those consequences desired outside of ourselves. For example, if teenagers tidied their rooms for the promise of a reward, that’s an extrinsic motivation – and learning to tidy a room becomes associated with a reward.

If the teenager tidied their room because a tidy room is virtuous and keeping it tidy maintains that virtue, their motivation is intrinsic. It is done not because of a consequence but because it is good in and of itself.

I would argue, then, that intrinsic motivations are more sustainable. They are internalised and are acted upon because of the good that the action itself possesses.

As such, I believe we serve our pupils better by trying to make the idea of hard work an intrinsic motivation whereby they take pride and satisfaction from working hard not because there is a reward at the end, but it is the right thing to do – just like being respectful, charitable and responsible.

The power of questions 

How can we do this, then? One simple way is to get students reflecting on their own efforts and work ethic.

For example, in our alternative curriculum classes – supporting student learning outside the mainstream – when a student has gone above and beyond on a project or assignment and has worked hard, we go through a process of reflection to embed a work ethic as an intrinsic motivation.

We do this through the simple act of asking questions, such as the following: 

  • How do you feel about your efforts?
  • What were some of the positives from working as hard as you did?
  • Do you think others should work hard as well? If so, why?
  • Would you like to feel those good feelings again?

This approach also encourages emotional knowledge – a way of knowing or having beliefs through feelings and reflection.

When the students begin to internalise the good of a complementary attachment figure (in this instance, their teacher) and a sense of pride regarding their level of engagement, those feelings never go away and are recalled as an intrinsic motivation – meaning that, over time, the requirement to promise a reward for hard work is not required.

It can take time for students to recognise the value in the difference but as the summer term drew to a close I could not help but notice that students were asking less often for rewards for their work and were more interested in reflecting on their efforts.

Dillon Wolfe is an SEN/EAL middle school teacher at an international school in Qatar

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