Do school rewards demotivate pupils?

The pupils are restless as they eagerly anticipate who will win the tablet computer for the most achievement points. The leadership team are gleaming trying to keep the pupils quiet while they intentionally string out the suspense like on X-Factor. A few fake draws brings with it cheers and jeers from the crowd but the principal finally reaches into the box and pulls out the winner.

Okay, this may be the case for some schools but my experience is not that exciting. We may go through the pantomime but the pupils are usually eagerly waiting to go because they have been sitting bored on a cold floor for the past hour knowing that the winner will most likely be the poorest behaved pupil.

Yeah, for school rewards! Could the school reward culture be sending out the wrong message? Are we promoting a system that does more damage than good? Daniel Pink thinks this may be the case. In his book Drive, Pink illustrates how rewards can damage motivation and our need to reevaluate the way we reward people. Can this be the same for schools? Can school rewards demotivate pupils? His conclusions kept me awake at night, but to be honest, what really kept me open-eyed was the thought – why don’t we end all school rewards?

What would the school look and feel like? Some may say that it would crush ethos and spit out culture leaving pupils disappointed and unappreciated. However, it may give rise to a new reality, to be more precise, a better understanding of reality. The reality in that behaving appropriately, having good attendance, being punctual, and working hard is the norm in the work place. These are not unrealistic expectations. Prison may reward good behaviour but in all other work environments you will find yourself unemployed if these expectations are ignored. In schools, though, we forget this.

Anton Suvorov’s Principal-Agent Theory suggests that rewards can give the impression to people that certain tasks are undesirable. For example, a common chore in the house is taking out the rubbish. Many parents ask their children to take it out but, unsurprisingly, the normal response from the child is “no”. Some parents may offer a financial incentive but doing so only reinforces to the child that the task is unappealing and to make things worse, the value of the reward will not be enough. In time, the child will raise the stakes knowing that you can’t go back because if you do all hell will break lose.

In schools, we pretty much reward everything because we want pupils to feel valued. However, when school’s  reward expected behaviours we may be faced with a similar situation in motivating children to take out the rubbish. Rewarding pupils for good punctuality to lessons may send the message out that arriving on time is a chore or lessons are unappealing. Likewise, rewarding good behaviour may suggest that behaving properly in lesson is difficult, therefore, if you are able to control your urges to disrupt you should be given a prize. Pupils should arrive to lesson on time and they must behave well in the classroom, these are non-negotiables but by offering a reward, it becomes a proposition.

Pink does suggest that some rewards may be okay. He refers to them as “now that” rewards which are given unexpectedly, as oppose to our current “if-then” reward system. An “if-then” is “if” you achieve 100% attendance for the year “then”  you will win this or receive that, which sends a message that attending school is so undesirable we have to reward pupils for showing up. Whereas, if the precedence is that pupils have to attend 100% of the time and “now” they have attended school 100% for the year, then a reward to acknowledge “that” is a one-off , in which does not undermine the importance of attendance or send out the wrong signal about attending school. This is because the reward will less likely be interpreted as the reason for attending but experienced as an acknowledgement for the fact the pupil achieved 100% attendance.

It is a bold move to end school rewards but its a strategy that may improve the long term motivation of our pupils. We must appeal to pupils intrinsic motivation to learning instead of relying on extrinsic rewards. The message we may be sending out is that learning is undesirable. Can we look pass what appears right and see what may be best?


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