Reward systems make losers out of teachers and students

It is recognition that gives us transformative power, because it changes behaviour

Tes Reporter

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We’re well into the academic year, and you’ve probably already doled out a few rewards or more to your students.

Perhaps the rewards were in response to an impressive piece of work or some good behaviour. Perhaps you pounced on the merest hint of compliance from a child you struggled with last year and want to get off on the right foot.

Admirable intentions, but I think we’ve been seduced by the pop behaviourism that says in order to foster good behaviour we must deploy “Do this and you’ll get that in return”.

My main gripe is that the use of rewards characterises misbehaviour simply as a matter of motivation: the child is always considered to be making a premeditated choice to misbehave and compliance is simply a matter of finding the right incentive. It has everything to do with doing and nothing to do with learning. It is an approach that fosters self-interest – a “What’s in this for me?” attitude – and I know that we’re all aiming for more from our students than that.

Easy but ineffective

Reward systems are simple and easy to implement and that’s one reason they’re endemic. Think of something enticing, dangle it in front of the child and sit back and wait for the resultant improvement in behaviour. It requires little thought on our part. This is its Achilles heel: it requires nothing beyond providing the reward. The adults don’t have to do things differently. This is why they are ineffective in changing behaviour.

Instead we should be focusing our efforts on recognition. Recognising good behaviour is more effective than rewarding good behaviour. It is the recognition that contains the transformative power, not the iTunes voucher or the Vivo points reward.

We should focus on recognising improvements and progress in behaviour to account for the fact that all of our children are at different points in their development.

Rewards have the same effect as grades do on feedback – “pupils ignore comments when marks are also given” (Butler, 1998), or judgements on lesson observation feedback. “This was an Ofsted ‘good’ lesson, Jarlath”, at which point Jarlath immediately stops listening.

Here’s my challenge to you: don’t give out any rewards at all next week. Instead, focus on recognising good behaviour, especially improvements.

Jarlath O’Brien is director for schools at The Eden Academy. His latest book, Better Behaviour – A Guide for Teachers, will be published by Sage in 2018. Further reading: Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn; Butler, R (1998) "Enhancing and Undermining Intrinsic Motivation; the Effects of Task-involving and Ego-involving Evaluation on Interest and Performance”, British Journal of Educational Psychology, 58: 1-14.


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