My son recently came home with a form explaining a new program in which his school is participating. If students read for 6 hours, they can earn free passes to a popular amusement park in the area. Some parents were excited about this opportunity. However, I was less then thrilled, and we elected not to participate. I am an avid reader. I love reading! Reading is wonderful! I know not everyone feels the same way about reading as I do, but why must we bribe kids to read (or do anything for that matter)?
In 1999, Alfie Kohn wrote a book entitled Punished by Rewards. It caused quite a stir in the educational community. However, Almost 2 decades later, the use of rewards in childhood learning environments (i.e. classrooms, after school activities, etc.) is as prevalent as ever. As a teacher and a parent of a young child, I am constantly amazed as to how we are inundated with reward incentives. It begs the question – what is the hidden cost of these reward systems?
One hidden cost of these systems that has been well documented in the research is that the use of extrinsic rewards reduces a person’s intrinsic motivation. I observed this first hand in my early years of teaching. My school was participating in Pizza Hut Book It Program, which rewarded kids with Pizza Hut certificates for reading a predetermined number of books. These programs do not turn non–readers into readers. However, they can slowly chip away at the intrinsic motivation of avid readers as I saw in my students. My most enthusiastic readers quickly began to question why they should get a reward for reading and slowly began to decline to participate in the program. So, why do we continue to endorse these programs?
As the new school year begins for many of us, I strongly encourage teachers to reflect on what type of extrinsic/bribery type reward systems they plan to use in their classrooms and what message those systems convey to students. Are these systems really needed for most students to behave in your classroom? Would there be chaos if you stopped using these systems? The bottom line is if children spend their entire childhood going from one environment to another where they are bribed and rewarded to behave, how does that help them develop into independent, critical thinkers who are capable of self–regulating their own behavior?