Examining rewards in the classroom: Do they truly support the student?

Examining rewards in the classroom: Do they truly support the student?

Examining rewards in the classroom: Do they truly support the student?

Education editor for The Telegraph, Graeme Paton, shared in his 2009 article that it had been stated that; “The practice of handing out large numbers of points, stickers and treats to pupils is ‘anti-educational’ and risks promoting the view that pupils can get ‘something for nothing’ as we are now routinely given certificates for the most mundane achievements.”[1]

So, what is the actual goal of rewarding children and what is it that we are actually rewarding in today’s education system?

Currently children are rewarded for adhering to rules, teachers’ expectations, the demands of the education system, and for behaving in a certain way within a system that is primarily about achieving outcomes. It feels important to consider the fact that we are using rewards to make children ‘follow and conform’.

What way of being are we actually fostering through giving rewards?

  • What are the long-term effects of training kids to seek recognition and rewards for just being a decent human being and fulfilling their basic responsibilities?

  • By using rewards, are we not teaching children to also manipulate and survive in the system rather than be who they naturally are?

  • What kind of adult, employee, parent, and member of society are we developing when we are training a child to constantly be fed by an external source?

  • What is the long-term effect of this way of rewarding on society as a whole?

Children, one day, will no longer be children. They will grow up to be the parents of children, to be employees, employers and be the ones leading society. We could ask... what values are we truly giving them for life through the way we use ‘rewards’ today?

If the process of learning is a reflection of life, why do we use rewards when life doesn’t offer them to us? For example, a businessman or woman does not receive a sticker or a prize regularly for just doing what is expected of them in their job. The reality is, if we don’t meet the criteria of our jobs, then we lose them. Another example; a parent does not have a person standing next to them saying, “well done, you made your kids’ breakfast” or “it’s great you were kind today” or “good job for giving your kids a cuddle”, here’s a sticker or reward.

By using rewards, we are interfering with the development of self-responsibility that life naturally offers to us in each and every situation. How would life look for children if this relationship with self-responsibility was the main focus, rather than one based on a reinforcement cycle?

Dr Richard Curwin, director of graduate programs in behaviour disorders, shares “What's missing is that we must look not only at the benefit of the strategy but also at the cost, and decide if the gain is worth the price”. And “When it comes to rewards, before we examine the potential benefits, let’s fully examine the costs. They are very high”. He outlines them as being:

  • “Satiation means that more of something is required to get the same effect: Many children become addicted to rewards and will not work without them

  • Children are more interested in finishing their work and getting the reward than actually learning what the lesson is designed to teach

  • We do not like it when children try to manipulate us. Yet when we manipulate them, we teach them how to be master manipulators

  • The more we tell children how good they are, the greater the fall if they cannot live up to all that praise. Pressure leads to insecurity

  • Bribes reduce choices and the skill of making them. Bribes are threats in disguise. Withholding rewards can be used as a threat hammer very easily. The truth is that threats and bribes are two sides of the same coin: control”.[2]

These simple points make sense while also leading to the fact that the way we use rewards is quite likely a bigger piece of the problem than originally thought. If children, through being rewarded, are being trained to be insecure, then we are not giving them a solid and confident foundation to step into the world with.

If we educated from the base of confirming who children are and then teaching them the tools for life, we could see that rewards would then have no place – as we do not need a reward for being who we are.

By rewarding in the way we currently do, is it actually cementing that we are not enough unless we behave in a certain way?

How does this continue into adulthood – constantly seeking the new car, the house, the end of year bonus . . . ?

Nothing about this approach confirms the truth of who we are, but actually trains us as humans to seek something outside of ourselves and forever chase that, much like a mouse running in the same spot trying very hard to get nowhere on its spinning wheel.

  • How would teaching be without rewards?
  • How would education be if we made it about growing responsible adults who know their value, who respected others, had the tools for life and were equipped to bring their contribution to society?

Is being ourselves not reward enough?


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  • [2]


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