In one of my classes, we recently had a class debate about whether or not teachers should use reward systems in the classroom. I am a very opinionated individual, and I certainly had an opinion about this topic. No rewards in the classroom? No candy for good behavior? You might as well outlaw happiness! I went into this debate completely convinced that reward systems are the key to success in the classroom.
Unfortunately, though, my teacher assigned me to argue for the side of the “anti-happiness” group of educators who oppose rewards in the classroom. I was immediately disheartened because I saw no way of winning a debate whose opposing sides appeared quite unequally yoked. I read aloud my group’s prompt which was a statement written by a teacher about how he had successfully helped his students to perform well without once using a material reward. He argued that rewards breed lazy learners and that students who are extrinsically motivated will never learn for the sake of learning.
We began discussing as a group in preparation for the debate and came up with several points that we would argue. The debate began, and the “pro-happiness” group appeared to have all the strong arguments. Some of their points included:
1. Rewards provide a foundation of motivation that children can build upon. As they grow older, their source of motivation will eventually turn from outward motivators towards those born within one’s self.
2. Children often need to be conditioned to behave favorably, and this won’t happen without extrinsic motivators. For example, when children with behavior issues demonstrate any degree of good behavior, you praise it like crazy, whether with words, candy, or another motivating incentive. Children will eventually learn that this behavior is good and will exhibit it all the time.
3. Rewards provide for children the motivation to do things that they don’t want to do and probably wouldn’t do otherwise. The joy students find in the desired reward often outweighs the displeasure of performing a given task, so they are motivated to do whatever they’re being asked to do.
4. Grades are extrinsic motivators, and students are often motivated to work hard in school when their intelligence and/or hard work can manifest themselves in a grade.
These were all very convincing arguments, and I quickly became discouraged as there didn’t appear to be any credible or logical rebuttals to these points. However, as the debate ensued, a few ideas began to formulate in my mind. I couldn’t think of an argument to contend with each of their points, but I did develop a very broad idea that challenged the foundation on which their arguments were based.
I realized that it isn’t realistic to expect that extrinsically motivating children will prepare them to be more self-motivated in the future. Who’s to say that children won’t become dependent on rewards for their sense of fulfillment and accomplishment? It seems to me that using rewards trains people to work hard for the reward itself rather than for what they learn and how they develop throughout the learning process. Grades are a perfect example. I don’t believe that grades very often reflect what a student has learned in a class, nor do I believe that very many people would sacrifice a good grade in order to learn more effectively. Learning may be the goal, but our education system is founded upon the idea that if you don’t reach specific benchmarks or get certain grades then you’re not good enough. Many people (I would even include myself at times) will do whatever it takes to get a good grade, even if that means sacrificing the learning process.
I wonder how our schools would be different if we didn’t condition youth at an early age to depend on extrinsic rewards. How would youth approach their education differently if they were taught early on to appreciate what they learn and how they develop throughout the learning process rather than to appreciate what they’re given for simply completing assigned tasks? Though I believe that extrinsic rewards have a place in educating the “whole child” in the classroom, I also believe that teaching children to be intrinsically motivated is the higher way and will lead students to more lasting satisfaction and success.
Despite my original thoughts as an “advocate of happiness” in the classroom, I believe that true happiness and success will come not when we are rewarded for our efforts but rather when we recognize all that we have learned and how we have grown throughout the process of diligent learning. What is your attitude towards learning? How can you deepen your own appreciation for the learning process? How will you establish in your classroom a love for learning among your students?