Reward Systems: Bribery or Motivation?



As a school teacher I was always looking for good reward systems to use in my classroom. After many attempts to manipulate, change, encourage, motivate, bribe my students I came across a book that changed my whole perspective on reward systems! Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn provides a better understanding on how to work with people instead of doing things to manipulate them. As an education consultant I would see most of my clients use various reward systems in their classrooms. For the most part I saw these systems fail or just work in the short term. I recently started to think about how reward systems work for my 3 year old at home, outside of a classroom setting. If I tell him I will give him a treat after he cleans his play room, does that “motivate” him to complete the task? Well yes,but then the next time I ask him to clean his play room, he asks me, “Do I get a treat?  Saying that I will give you something in return for an expectation I have (which is to clean your play room) does not lead to intrinsic motivation. I noticed with my son that if a reward is delayed, then he can care less about working for it.  I am not saying that children do not need motivation or they shouldn’t be rewarded, heck…we all need that! But there is a way to do it that doesn’t involve paying or bribing your child to do things that they are expected to do. I think Kohn said it best when he asks,”Do rewards motivate people?” “Yes. They motivate people to get rewards”.

Here is a workshop I gave about reward systems to a group of elementary school teachers and administrators (during an education conference):

B.F Skinner was interested in not only how rewards work, he would also argue that almost everything we do and who we are can be explained in terms of the principle of reinforcement. This is the core of behaviorism. Classical Conditioning, which we all remember from Psych 101, taught us about Pavlov’s dog (Rover salivates when he smells meat.  By pairing a bell when the steak appears, Rover comes to associate the two). Operant conditioning, by contrast is concerned with how an action may be controlled by a stimulus that comes after it, rather than before it. When a reward follows a behavior, that behavior is likely to be repeated. In other words “do this and you’ll get that” will lead to do “this” again. Our focus is on the later type of learning, operant conditioning.

I will never forget one of my first years teaching in the classroom. I had spent all summer coming up with a reward system and I was so excited to get it in place.  The “whole class reward system” allowed the class to earn a pizza party when the marble jar was filled.  I also tracked group points (group reward system) where their seating cluster can earn extra recess time or homework passes, and a “token economy” (individual reward system) where the students could exchange their tickets for prizes. I was ready to go for the year and I had figured out how to motivate my students. There was no way my students would even think about misbehaving in my class, right?

I introduced my system and my students seemed so excited about the prizes and goodies they were about to win.  For the first week or two I was diligent about adding marbles to the jar, tracking points and handing out tickets and I thought my plan was working. Soon after week two, I noticed something, a lot less marbles, points and tickets were being earned. Behavior problems were emerging and I felt like I was constantly reminding them about the marbles, points and tickets they should be earning. I started getting comments like “that’s not fair, why are we being punished (by not getting marbles) when we are behaving”. I became completely deflated when one student said,“I don’t even care about those prizes, why should I follow the rules?”.

I spent the next nine months pulling my hair out trying to implement new plans, new systems, and new rewards. I came home from school most days crying and feeling like I have become a mean drill Sergeant who was in charge of regulating behavior issues all day long. This story doesn’t have a happy ending, it was the worst teaching year of my life and it made me rethink my “devotion” to reward systems. After many years of teaching, I have since become an educational consultant where I mentor teachers on behavior management.

I have seen the importance and the pure necessity of creating a nurturing classroom community. Students want to be heard, they need attention and want validation. If teachers don’t give them this in a constructive way, then they will demand it through negative attention (the easiest and fastest way to get recognized, right?).  Instead of addressing the bigger issue behind behavior problems, I used a reward system to mask it. I learned that masking can only last so long and only act at best as a band-aid, when what you really need is “open heart surgery”. Rewards do nothing to promote collaboration or a sense of community.

“It rarely dawns on us that while people may seem to respond to the goodies we offer, the very need to keep offering these treats to elicit the same behavior may offer a clue about their long term effect (or lack of them). Whacking my computer when I first turn it on may somehow help the operating system to engage, but if I have to do that every morning, I will eventually get the idea that I am not addressing the real problem. If I have to whack it harder and harder, I might even start to suspect that my quick fix is making the problem worse” (pg 17. Punished by Rewards).

If your objective is to foster careful thinkers and self directed learners than rewards are useless. A teacher should not have to pay or bribe their student to follow the rules. Rules are expectations, can you imagine how much money you would make if you got a dollar everyday you obeyed the speed limit? Rewards don’t aid in intrinsic motivation or make students become more creative so they can get an A, and in turn earn that special reward. I have found vast amount of research to prove that reward systems don’t work. “Individuals who receive rewards seem to work harder and produce more activity but the activity is of lower quality, contains more errors, and is more stereotyped and less creative than the work of comparable non reward subjects working on the same problems”. (Condry 1977, pg 470-471)

“Do this and you’ll get that” is bad news whether our goal is to change behavior or motivate. Whether we are dealing with a dollar, gold star, candy bar, or any other bribe on which we routinely rely. Even assuming we have no ethical reservation about manipulating other peoples behavior to get them to do what we want, the plain truth is that this strategy is likely to backfire. When you train a dog you give him a treat after he follows a command, eventually you taper the treat giving until he is following the command, without the treat (reward). Why does the dog keep following the command, maybe its because he thinks eventually he will get a treat again? Humans are different, by giving a treat they will always expect a treat. When you stop giving a reward, do you think they will be happy to continue the behavior?

So, why do we still use rewards? It is a socially acceptable way to approach behavior modification, even though it is more correct in calling it, behavior manipulation. It is the fastest and easiest way to control our students. Most of us were raised on some sort of reward system. I use to love filling in my chores chart as a kid and then receiving a prize at the end week. Research by Ann Boggino and her colleagues has shown that American adults, including parents, are firm believers in rewards. “Typically, it is assumed that rewards will increase children’s interest in an academic assignment or their commitment to altruistic behavior. Even when presented with data indicating that the reverse is true, 125 college students in one experiment continued to insist that rewards are effective.” Some things are so deeply ingrained in us that it is so hard to change or question a mindset about something that has been so rooted in there.

I would love to hear your thoughts on reward systems. What do you think about reward systems? Do they work? Do they actually lead to “behavior modification”? Are reward systems successful in the long run? Are young children driven by delayed rewards (i.e when you go in the potty or clean your room, you will get a chocolate chip?) Do you agree with this argument against rewards? What is your experience?

Please share your thoughts….thank you!