A fishbowl full of candy sat on the third-grade teacher’s desk.
”When you’ve finished your math assignment you can choose a piece of candy,” Ms. Marsh said as she handed out worksheets.
All but two of the students went to work. Tamika and Jennifer looked out the window, math sheets untouched. Tamika began her calculations as the first students turned in papers. Jennifer never picked up her pencil.
At lunch, I sat down and visited with the girls about what I had observed.
”Jennifer,” I said, ”why didn’t you work on your math assignment?”
”Well,” Jennifer said, ”I don’t like math, and I don’t like that kind of candy. So why bother?”
Tamika joined in. ”I like math, but I don’t like being treated like a baby.” Her voice changed to a high-pitched singsong. ”Here baby, baby. Do your mathy-wathy and you can have some candy. Okay, baby?”
Jennifer said, ”Yeah, that’s kind of how it feels to me.”
Tamika continued. ”So I challenge myself. I wait until the first person turns in work, and then I see if I can get it done, 100 percent correct, by the time the fifth person gets to Ms. Marsh’s desk. And I don’t like that candy either.”
Alfie Kohn in his book, Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise and other Bribes, documents how rewarding behavior can create the same kind of discouragement, anger and resentment that is created when punishing behavior. Incentives rarely motivate, and as in the case of Jennifer and Tamika, actually become disincentives.
Kohn recommends that instead of ”doing to” our children to change their behavior, we should instead concentrate on ”working with” our children to help them understand their personal or intrinsic motivations.
Kohn suggests we can create in our homes and classrooms conditions for authentic motivation by doing four things: Watch, listen, talk and think.
Watch. Watching means we don’t keep our children under constant surveillance. We look for problems that need to be solved and help our children solve them. Tamika’s parents had taught her how to make a game out of something that she might not be motivated to do.
Listen. We listen to our children and take their point of view seriously and respectfully. We try to imagine how the situation looks from their point of view. Ms. Marsh, in her desire to motivate her students, had neglected to listen for her students’ point of view.
Talk. Talking actually means for us as adults to talk less and ask more questions. We need to encourage our children to talk to us so that we will know what we are doing right, where we need to improve and how we might change. As a visiting classroom observer, I was able to ask Tamika and Jennifer about their math and get important feedback.
Think. We need to think about the long-term effects of our strategies when we offer extrinsic rewards. We also need to think about the origins of our strategies. Are our strategies based on a preference of using power in our relationships, or a reaction to being controlled by others? In Ms. Marsh’s situation, she had learned about the candy reward system in an in-service presentation. Her school was trying to improve scores on their state-mandated math test. Test scores, which did not improve with candied motivation.
If we are committed to helping our children be able and willing to do their best, we need to watch, listen, talk and think to be sure our strategies are building intrinsic motivation and not punishing by rewards.