Sunday, October 19, 2014

3 reasons to stop rewarding and punishing children

Teachers and schools make thousands of decisions, big and small, everyday. Just as we would hope that our doctors and hospitals are making decisions based on evidence and research, so should teachers and schools.

Should schools use rewards and punishments on their students?

Here are 3 reasons why schools and teachers need to stop using rewards and punishments:

1. We want children to do the right things for the right reasons. Too often rewards distract children from doing the right thing for the right reason. Instead of being virtuous and doing the right thing regardless of whether anyone is watching or waiting to catch them, too many children (and adults) will do good only when they stand to personally gain -- then we lament about why some children (and adults) become grade grubberspraise junkies and bribe bait. We can't teach children to do the right thing with carrots and sticks. We want children to share and adults to slow down in playground zones not because they might get caught -- and yet when we reward and punish children to do the right thing, we teach them to look over their shoulder before they do good or bad.

2. There are two kinds of motivation: intrinsic & extrinsic. The problem here is that we need to stop asking ‘How motivated are my students?’ and start asking ‘How are my students motivated?’. Motivation is not a single entity that you either have a lot or little of. There are two kinds: intrinsic and extrinsic. If you are intrinsically motivated then you are doing something for its own sake; if you are extrinsically motivated, you are driven to do something, or not do something, based on a reward or punishment that may be waiting for you. But that is not even the interesting part—the real catch here is that these two kinds of motivation tend to be inversely related. When you grow students' extrinsic motivation by bribing them (or threatening them), you run the risk of growing their extrinsic motivation while their intrinsic love for what you want them to learn shrivels. Rewards can only ever gain short-term compliance from students when what we really desire is their authentic engagement.

3. To a child, an adult's praise and presents are cheap -- it's our presence that they value the most. There is absolutely nothing wrong with recognizing children -- problems occur, however, when our recognition is manipulative and controlling. Too often the children we deem the most undeserving of our recognition and attention are those who need us the most -- too often rewards and punishments rupture our relationships with children. My teaching and parenting mantra is borrowed directly from Jerome Bruner who once said that, "Children should experience success and failure not as reward and punishment but as information". This mindset lays the foundation for shifting away from doing things to children and moving towards working with them.

Further reading:

Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn

Why we do What we do? by Edward Deci

Drive by Daniel Pink


  1. Great thoughts Joe! My building currently uses a reward/punish system that they are heavily invested in and that I'm generally sceptical about. We see a lot of those looking over the shoulder type of behaviours to say the least. School admins love systems. If you had a magic wand, what kind of system would you suggest that met the idea of motivating intrinsically, but satisfied the need to have a "system"?

  2. YES! I am a private instrumental teacher. I don't use stickers or certificates, but I do tell my students that, for example, they must be so happy to have achieved such and such and that I am happy for them. This way, they learn to be happy about their accomplishments instead of waiting for some useless piece of tangible recognition from me. We have to teach our children the habit of success and that comes only from teaching them to recognize their own accomplishments and to find joy and satisfaction in them. Of course, we can also tell our students on occasion that we are proud of them, but we have to teach them to be proud of themselves when they succeed at something and not to view a setback as failure, just a temporary thing that can be overcome with help (the teacher) and persistence on both parts.The beauty of private teaching is that we don't give grades (I don't, anyway) which is a sort of reward system, so it is easier for us. I remember when I was in high school, college and graduate school that people tend to study to get the good grade and not to master the subject. It is very easy to fall into this trap of doing things for approval of others instead of for personal accomplishment.

  3. Hello Mr. Bower. My name is Jessica Mayo and I am a student in Dr. Strange's EDM310 class. I have never thought of not using rewards/punishments for teaching. I like the point that you make that punishment/rewards is not successful for students. I like that you want to find out how students are motivated, instead of how motivated your students are. I loved your post!!

  4. This generally makes sence, but it's hard to imagine today's education system without constant change of rewarding and punishing episodes. Some of my school teachers were absolutely unjust to some of my classmates. Some of them punish children as they think they are using custom essays writers service and reward another students for well written papers not knowing the original author of the essay. I think government must think about this issue.