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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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How to Motivate Learning: Alternatives to Rewards

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

One of the first and most important rules of behavior management is that when you take something away, you need to give something back. It's not good enough to say, "Don't" without saying, "Do this instead." Alternatives must be provided for change to occur. In my last post (Why Giving Bonus Money to Better Teachers Is Wrong), I strongly rejected the use of rewards, incentives, bribes and other harmful gimmicks. Now it is my responsibility to offer viable alternatives so that educators have the ability to change. These alternatives are plentiful. I'm going to concentrate on the three most important and easiest to implement.

1) Show Appreciation

I once did a training session in San Francisco on alternatives to reward with Alfie Kohn and William Glasser, two men whom I respect and mostly agree with. However, their position allowed no opportunity for teachers to make judgment on student work. I disagree with this position. I believe we have a responsibility and obligation as teachers to evaluate students' academic performance and behavior. For me, the issue is what we do with these evaluations and how we express them. When we have positive things to say, there is a great difference between manipulating students to behave in a certain way by giving them things when they comply, and expressing true feelings of appreciation for something well done. Kohn and Glasser have said that in the final analysis, both have the same effect of influencing behavior to get students to do what we want. Again, I disagree. No one can work hard without validation, appreciation, being noticed or being thanked as long as these things don't have a price tag attached. I can't, and neither can most educators. We work hard and deserve recognition for it.

The difference between manipulation and appreciation is that the first has an ultimate pre-determined destination, while the second is an expression of genuine feelings. Rewards are typically offered before requesting results. ("If you do this, you'll get that.") They are conditional. They are part of a system that has been pre-determined. Appreciation is always given after a student's behavior. It is neither conditional nor pre-determined. When we appreciate we are not looking for a repeat performance, although we wouldn't mind it. Appreciation comes from the heart, not some system.

2) Introduce Appropriate Challenge

Imagine you are going to play a game tomorrow, any game of your choice, from a sport to a computer game, board game, chess or cards. You have your choice of two opponents. The first is someone who has always beaten you. You've gotten close to winning but never have done so. The second choice is someone you have easily beaten every time. Which would you choose?

People rarely chose the second. There is no energy, no thrill in winning, nothing to play for. If you have ever played your young child in Candy Land, you never say, "I'm going to beat that sucker again this time." We usually pick the first because the challenge energizes us. Our whole body is focused, adrenalin runs through our veins. We are in a heightened level of consciousness. And if we win, the feeling of accomplishment is overwhelming. Have you ever beaten a parent or older sibling for the first time? It is an unforgettable memory. No reward can come close to the feeling of that victory.

We feel the same whenever we meet a challenge, be it mastering a computer skill, cooking a great meal or assembling a swing set in the backyard. Divorced people feel that way when they first do something that their spouse used to do. So it is in school. Providing appropriate challenge to students beats any form of reward in motivating students.

The trick is to find the most appropriate level of challenge. Too easy builds little pride, and too hard leads to frustration. The best way to do this is to offer various levels of challenge and let the student choose, like a video game with various difficulty levels. Of course, there can be no reward or punishment attached, or students will naturally go for the easiest level.

3) Get to Know Your Students and Show Genuine Care

Think of the best teachers you ever had from kindergarten through graduate school. They all had one thing in common; they genuinely cared about your welfare. They talked with you about your feelings around school issues, your successes, failures and needs. They laughed with you, encouraged you and, most importantly, touched your heart. How many teachers' names can you still remember, visualizing their faces in your mind? No doubt it's those who made you feel part of something bigger than yourself, like a family does. Can any reward or bribe come close to these feelings as motivators?

Obviously we have limited resources to develop relationships with all of our students. But I know firsthand that a classroom can be taught that way. I have had classes with up to 40 students and presentations with hundreds of participants, and we created a feeling of intimacy. How? By being genuine, expressing ideas from the heart and caring about their learning more than my teaching. I always remember that I teach for them, they don't learn for me.

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Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College
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