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How to Motivate Learning: Alternatives to Rewards

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College
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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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Buffys Still Learnin's picture
Buffys Still Learnin
7th Grade Science Teacher and wannabe tech geek from Louisville, KY

"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."
Thank you for such a positive reminder. I know there will come a day when I will need this reminder. I'm going to post in my closet/office.

aspacia's picture
11th grade Las Vegas Amc. Lit. Teacher

Totally disagree with the good professor. Humans work for rewards and recognition. It is the same with students. They are thrilled when, after working, they achieve a higher score or achieve recognition for winning a competition.

I paid my son for his grades, and it worked because he realized that sometimes it takes an extra effort to earn that A. This work ethic transferred into his job performance and he sometimes works 15 hour days to help his company remain competitive. As a teacher, I work at least two hours overtime on a daily basis, along with brainstorming lesson plans during the weekend. Recently, our principal held a luncheon for all proficient 11th grade students. I totally agree. This same principal has made assemblies by invitation only for 11th graders, thus not rewarding nonproficient students. I totally agree with this too.

In the future, do you believe that a supervisor is going to care for the welfare of these students. Will showing that we "Care" transfer into student real world expectation and cause a huge shock when out of the public school cocoon. No, we are teacher to prepare our youth to be productive members of society with a firm grip on reality.

Your plan will set students up for real world failure.

Eric H. Roth's picture
Eric H. Roth
university lecturer and English teacher

Thank you for sharing this illuminating primer that reminds us to focus on our students' authentic goals and aspirations - inside and outside the classroom. The strong conclusion should be internalized by dedicated educators at all levels:
"I always remember that I teach for them, they don't learn for me."

Stephanie's picture

I have to disagree with aspacia, and agree with Richard.
Yes, i agree that humans like to get rewarded, but basically, appreciation is a reward - unconditional and impromptu.
I can see that your rewards "worked" as you see it, but i dont necesarily see a young man working 15 hours days a good result! i would see a good result as a young man who is able to balance his work- life balance, develop deep and meaningful relationships with his friends and spouse / partner, and enjoy being challenged by his chosen career. And yes, as an employee be diligent, but this motivation should come from an internal desire to do a good job and to the best of HIS ability (ie. meeting a challenge). I feel this can best be developed by honest personal appreciation from a person that you have built a relationship with (life really is about relationships!)- it doesnt always come straight away in some people, some need a lot of mentoring first.

As a homeschooling parent of a learning disabled child I really feel for those students in your school who are by default 'unproficient'. No, i dont think we should hollowly build up self esteem, but we should encourage students to grow and challenge at THEIR level of ability, and THEIR speed, not ostracise them when they do not meet OUR expectations. Ever think that maybe those left out children are really trying hard?? But they are not being recognised for their efforts, only put down. Why would you bother to try anymore if that was the result?!

I agree we have to prepare children for the wider world. So does that mean that from age 6 (or younger) we show them that unless you meet some (often unexpressed)expectation you are unacceptable? does this not produce elitest, prejudiced people at the "top" and downtrodden, hopeless people at the "bottom" whose (very valid) contribution to society we are missing out on? is it not better to develop a good, strong character in ALL students so that they can cope with the challenges that life throws at them?

Amanda's picture
music teacher/parent of 3/special needs homeschooler

My husband's family was raised with your methodology, Aspacia, and I have to say failure, not success, in the real world was imminent for him. As Stephanie points out, money does not maketh the man but relationships do. He was a workaholic who valued only money and if you did not earn well you were nohing. Status anxiety, it is called. Have you heard of it? He left me to homechool our severely disabled child who has normal intelligence and who he wanted to put into a school for children with inellectual disabilities because the 'regular' schools couldn't cope with his high physical needs. I was to go back to work and earn! Teaching other people's children while letting my own child down! Teachers should be teaching people the value of knowledge and learning and of each human being's contribution to the world not the value of the almighty dollar and what you should do to achieve it. Everyone knows someone who got through high school with great marks but who isn't exactly a very knowledgeable person; these are the 'finishers' Dr Curwin was talking about. Paying the 'finishers' teaches them that they are the only valued members of society and this is absolutely wrong. It creates a society of uncaring, unethical greedy people who value themselves and their supposed skills too highly just because they're good at making money. It's what people in the 'olden days' used to call shallow or superficial people.

Amanda's picture
music teacher/parent of 3/special needs homeschooler

I totally agree and feel very encouraged by your use of music to aid those with visual processing deficits. I, too, am a music teacher but I homeschool my 7 year old son who has Cerebral Palsy and a visual impairment. He is very aurally adept and I use music with everything to make learning accessible and fun. He also plays a lot of music even though he has a severe physical disability, but he shows his knowledge of music in hitting the bass notes on the piuano to his Michael Buble CD's and loves to show me where he modulates etc. Music has been an invaluable tool in helping him to feel good at something and has realy been the corner stone to all of his learning and the growth in his self-confidence as an independent thinker. In Australia music is seen as a frill in mainstream schools and is hardly used at all with special needs classes which is a crying shame as it is indeed a very valuable tool and an important and valid subject in it's own right.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Thanks for this. I'm driven a little crazy these days by the use of candy/ sticker/ party rewards in my kids' schools.

Can I also add that what we often perceive as lack of motivation is often lack of clarity around what's expected- either in terms of behavior, learning, or product?

Whitney Hoffman's picture
Whitney Hoffman
Producer LD Podcast, Digital Media Consultant, Author

I agree with Dr. Curwin that more human rewards are important over things like token economies. That said, the discussion can get complicated quickly.
Positive behavior, reinforced over time, including proximate steps towards the goal, leads to greater behavior change than negative reinforcement. The question is knowing the "currency" that is most important to kids, and approval is right up there. Dr. Rick Hansen a neuropsychologist (podcast here ) suggests that you need 5 positive interactions to overcome one negative one, which is something I think all teachers should keep in mind.

Kids need to be treated with realistic, positive critique, and it's not always easy to do this. I've often asked my son how he wants me to help him, because we've had too many experiences where the critique is painful for him, and we've come up with a couple of ways where i can edit something for him online with notes that feels less attacking than marking up a paper in front of him.
Sometimes it may be as simple as looking at teaching as less of a boss/employee relationship and more like a mentorship, or future research and development of new citizens :) We want to help guide kids in the right direction, not make it a death march towards graduation.

dunabump82's picture

In he wake of PBIS in our school, we are FORCED as teachers to reward students in those damaging ways mentioned before. Our students earn cues which are similar to Monopoly money for making good choices. Then they can redeem or "spend" these cues at a store. Teachers like myself who shy away from giving these cues face a level of scrutiny from students and administration. I hate it. I hope that in time PBIS will fade away like many other fads, so that true ethical positive consequences can return.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

I just want to thank Whitney for the link to the podcast with Dr. Hansen. It's only 6 minutes but definitely worth watching.

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