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No prizes for guessing why I ditched rewards

Self-confessed rewards junkie Ben Burgess was obsessed with handing out stickers, ‘Dojos’, certificates and house points. Until, that is, he realised his behaviour was holding back pupils’ learning

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Self-confessed rewards junkie Ben Burgess was obsessed with handing out stickers, ‘Dojos’, certificates and house points. Until, that is, he realised his behaviour was holding back pupils’ learning

Stickers, stamps, merits, certificates, toys, sweets, star of the week, house points, team points, Dojo points, golden time, values award, effort award, class teddy, raffle tickets…how many of these rewards have you used? How many have you been obliged to use because it is school policy?

In my four years of teaching, I’ve tried them all. And I was a pretty passive user. I almost never asked some important questions: why are we doing this? Why are there so many different kinds of rewards? Why do we really dish them out? Why does the rather ill-mannered, sometimes violent child in Year 3 (who has been excluded twice) always get 50 merits before everyone else in the school?

I only truly began reflecting on the chaotic world of rewards when I asked a child in my class to pick up the pencils from under her table. “How many Dojos do I get for it?” she replied, smugly.

I had created a monster

What kind of a monster had I created? Had I turned these children into reward junkies, where even the simplest request from me was met with a demand for some form of recompense? Around this time, I had joined the “growth mindset” working party at our school. Everything I read and learned about the benefits and power of growth mindset was stacked directly against rewards.

This train of thought led me to Daniel Pink’s excellent book Drive. Within a few pages, my previous main classroom management and motivational tool of rewards was smashed to smitherines. Instead of motivating the children, it dawned on me that I could actually be demotivating them and robbing them of their intrinsic motivation.

Our working party consulted the senior leadership team and asked if we could go cold turkey on rewards as a school. After some negotiation, merits were scrapped. But when it came to the values certificate, the effort certificate and all the other little reward tactics already established, we came up against more opposition. The compromise was that when we started back in September, my new class and one other would be reward-free as a trial.

At this point, the hard work began. I started to examine the everyday language I used with my class. “Tidy up, please. Cleanest table gets a Dojo each.

“Well done, Charlotte, for getting on with your work, two Dojos for you.

“Excellent manners, Lewis, have a Dojo.”

I was out of control! I needed to change my teaching style completely. I’d become lazy and I was using rewards as a classroom management tool.

I spent the summer holidays reading and researching articles and books about motivation. I really wanted this “no rewards” plan to work. But I was worried, too: would I struggle to manage behaviour and motivate the children without my “carrot and stick” approach?

New year, new approach

September arrived. My new class filed in. All those happy smiling faces, eager to please their teacher. First up, some team-building games. I usually offer a merit each and two Dojos (Class Dojo is a reward scheme, for those who don’t know) to the winning team. I was getting withdrawal symptoms when I looked behind me and there was no merit chart on the wall, no cute monsters smiling familiarly at me from the interactive white board.

I said nothing and the children didn’t ask for a prize. They just got on with the task of working as a group to build the highest tower in the class. Did anyone refuse? No. Was anyone unmotivated? No. When the winners were announced, they received a round of applause and everyone happily tidied the mess and went for break.

That went well, I thought, but things will change when the work gets less entertaining and more traditional, surely?

I realised that I could actually be demotivating them

Then came maths. It used to be rewards central. This time there was nothing on offer. Did it affect the children’s attitude? Of course not. They just wanted to do their learning.

Over the next few months I found that my teaching was improving. I was having to change my language and style. And it was for the better.

Strangely, one of the hardest moments I had was after the children spent three weeks writing, editing, re-editing and publishing their adventure stories. The effort from so many was above and beyond. I just wanted to write that sweet “1 merit” on their books. Instead, I gave specific feedback for them to respond to. When the children received their books back I watched all their faces closely, expecting to see some crushed, deflated looks. Instead they merrily picked up their purple polishing pens and responded to my gap task.

I really had got children completely wrong. Rewards, or the lack of them was my issue, not theirs. They just wanted to come to school and learn.

Regular reward fixes

However, after a few months there was some staff feedback that the poor unloved children in my class were not getting their regular reward fixes in the weekly assembly. It was agreed that my class would have a debate and decide for themselves if we should go back to the traditional system of one child winning the effort and one child winning the values certificate every week (until this point, I’d been giving it to the whole class).

“Of course we should or why would we bother doing anything?” was the first reply. Had they even noticed they’d not received a reward for more than two months? I let the debate play out. Opinions were given, opinions were challenged and opinions were changed over the next 30 minutes. Highlights included a girl insisting that “coming to school and learning was a reward because many people around the world don’t even get that chance”.

The debate eventually ended with the conclusion that learning is a reward in itself and that the children didn’t need a piece of paper to tell them that they had worked hard.

Now this was just a small scale research project but the impact has been significant. My students don’t behave for a merit, they don’t endeavour to do their work for a Dojo and they don’t persevere in the face of challenges for a certificate. They do it because, deep down, children want to learn, they want to impress and they want to grow.

Ditch the rewards. Trust me.

Ben Burgess is a primary school teacher and former footballer for Hull City and Blackpool

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