Punished by Rewards


This was one of the first books I read that started me on my journey away from the public school system, and towards finding some of the answers I was seeking.

In my orchestra classes, as I was looking for ways to motivate my students to do well, I commonly used extrinsic rewards such as earning prizes or pizza parties for getting enough practice time in during each week. This is what I learned from mentor teachers that I had to do. And, filling out weekly practice records was something I was required to do when I was a student in orchestra classes myself, so it made sense to me to do that same thing for my students. My parents did not closely monitor every minute of practice that I recorded, but at the same time, I knew they would not sign to verify that I had done an hour of practice every day, if I clearly did not.

However, I was learning very quickly that requiring my students to complete a weekly practice record was not functioning as I had intended. The purpose was to help create a habit of daily practice. I even dangled a treasure chest of toys to choose from, candy bars, or stickers as incentives to get those practice logs turned in, signed by parents, and with a minimum number of minutes per week.

In reality though, this requirement actually taught most children many undesirable lessons. First, since the number of minutes practiced does not take into account the quality or effectiveness of the practicing, requiring a minimum number of minutes practice per week does little to actually improve the child’s ability. The child, equally aware of this dilemma, tends to practice the “easy stuff” for an hour a day, or worse, simply fill in extra minutes – in order to earn those prizes.

Earning rewards motivated some students, but usually only those who were already practicing effectively anyway. Others participated for a week or two, and then interest faded and I had to come up with other “motivators”. Other children simply were not fooled, and didn’t ever bother to fill out or submit practice records. Earning a worse grade in the class as a result was also usually not motivation enough to practice more. (Because, earning a grade in a class is an extrinsic motivator in itself.)

Mostly, requiring practice logs and keeping up with the latest gimmicky rewards system, made a lot of work for me, with very little real results. Further, I was not teaching my students that being able to play the instrument well and make beautiful music is the reward for the effort that they put in.

Now, as a Montessori teacher, I do not have the job of coming up with incentives, bribes, or external motivators in order to motivate children. Most of the children who come to the classroom are naturally excited to learn and have a desire to achieve something. And my job is to keep that excitement and love of learning alive. I have learned that it is true that children are naturally motivated to explore and learn, and will learn from natural consequences of the decisions they make – good or bad ones. But, once children get into a habit of relying on bribes and rewards, it is a difficult habit to break, and a difficult task to help them rekindle that natural love for learning.

Unfortunately for some children, this habit is begun early in their lives and continues, and even worsens, throughout their school-aged years. It is important to change that path early, but even better, to avoid it altogether. This is the job of the parents and teachers, and it is one to be taken very seriously. If we are to raise a community of peaceful children, we need to avoid creating a mentality of “What’s in it for me?” Instead, we need to show children that a peaceful and pleasant environment is the result of cooperation, respect, and love.

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