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Using Rewards in the Classroom: Short-Term Crutch or Long-Term Strategy?

Today is the last day of Center for Inspired Teaching’s two-week Institute, and as the rest of the country talks about the merits and shortcomings of the Obama administration’s education plan – particularly its belief that external systems of accountability and extrinsic motivators like performance pay are an essential ingredient in reforming public education – I’m watching the same debate unfold here, on the ground, as a small group of DC teachers prepares for the coming school year.

The debate was seeded by the Institute’s two lead facilitators, Aleta Margolis and Jenna Fournel, who began one morning by asking teachers to place themselves along a continuum – in the form of a blue line that stretched from one side of the room to the other, and identified strongly agree and strongly disagree as the two poles. “I’m going to read off some prompts,” Jenna explained, “and when I do please place yourself along the continuum using your two feet.”

Before the exercise began, Jenna provided two definitions – tangible rewards (“By this we mean things like stickers, free time, extra privileges, and the like.), and punishment (“By which we mean the loss or denial or something of value.”)

  • It is more effective to reward students for good behavior than to punish them for bad behavior.
  • Tangible rewards make school more interesting for students.
  • Tangible rewards are effective teaching tools.
  • Tangible rewards motivate students to work harder.
  • Tangible rewards motivate students to behave better.
  • Tangible rewards are bribes.
  • I am motivated professionally by tangible rewards.
  • I am motivated personally by tangible rewards.
  • When a teacher offers a tangible reward for completing schoolwork the teacher is sending the message that the work itself is not important.
  • When a teacher offers a tangible reward the teacher is sending the message that doing the right thing is valuable.
  • Tangible rewards are copouts for teachers because teachers can offer rewards instead of making the curriculum interesting.

After everyone had had a chance to plot his or her own thinking on the subject, Jenna explained what was coming next: a good old-fashioned debate. “And I invite you to choose the side you don’t personally agree with,” she added. “Let’s imagine we’re creating our own new school in DC. And you the teachers must be the ones to decide whether or not we use extrinsic rewards.”

After 20 minutes of time to prepare their arguments and a ceremonial coin flip, the group in charge of arguing against tangible rewards went first:

“We’d like to start with quote from Alfie Kohn,” the group spokesperson began. “’At least two dozen studies have shown that people expecting to receive a reward for a task do not perform as well as someone expecting nothing.’”

“The first thing we need to do is decide what we’re trying to do? Our argument is that there is no tangible long-term benefit to using tangible rewards. It’s a short-term fix. Often rewards are not for the kids’ benefit, but for our own. It’s about control, and making our jobs easier. A large part of why teachers use tangible rewards is because they lack the skills to identify good alternatives. Additionally, tangible rewards can distract from the love of learning. Every time you give a tangible reward, you’re indirectly punishing all students who don’t receive them.

“This does not mean we’re discounting celebrations in the classroom,” she concluded. “We are saying that a child promised a treat for learning has been given every reason to stop doing so as soon as the reward goes away.”

Applause broke out in the room, a short shuffling of papers followed, and then group two took the stage.

“I would challenge you by saying that the adults referred to in your argument have chosen a profession where they’re motivated to help children. It’s vital we assist adults in being successful. We can’t only focus on kids who already have intrinsic motivation. If there are twenty kids and some of them would benefit from extrinsic motivations, we shouldn’t deny those kids the chance to become more engaged. We need to have all the tools for people in order to facilitate inclusion. There are different levels of rewards, and our goal must be to try and bring kids to a different level of functioning. We also believe rewards can trigger behavior. The first day children may need something that can feel and touch that makes them feel good. That initial feeling can then snowball in a positive way. It’s showing that we value them and their families, and are preparing them to be successful in the real world they will enter when they graduate.”

As the debate concluded (not surprisingly, no winner was named), it was clear to me that this was an issue over which there was little consensus. For some, the power of extrinsic rewards could not be denied. They have seen the changes in kids that have struggled for so long. For others, the use of tangible rewards is a crutch that only delays the deeper transformation that a powerful learning environment tries to surface.

Over lunch that day, I continued the conversation under umbrellas and a round table on the school’s rooftop balcony. “I just finished my third year teaching,” said one young woman named Heather, “and the way I motivate kids is through extrinsic awards. It’s the easiest thing to do when classroom behavior is a challenge.”

Another young woman named Lee agrees. “When you’re in a challenging environment, and you don’t have the support to create a more holistic learning environment that would support an intrinsic classroom. I feel like this is a big personal challenge, too, as a novice teacher. I‘m not sure I’m capable yet of being intentional enough day after day to provide a more purely intrinsic learning experience for my kids.”

Lee’s admission prompted another teacher at the table, a woman named Michelle, to join in. “I’ve used extrinsic awards, but not consistently. What ends up happening as a result is I have kids occasionally ask me if they’re getting a reward for what they’re doing. So I’m wondering how my inconsistency has impacted them when it comes to motivation overall. And whether or not my use of rewards has delayed their own deeper appreciation for the work they do.”

Ben, the lone male participant in the Institute, talked about the “token economy” of extrinsic awards his school uses. “I don’t really use them in my own class, but I think it’s most useful, and most used, in the non-classroom setting. In the cafeteria, for example, where the adults are less likely to know the kids they’re supervising, I think it’s extremely useful. And I’ve seen in my own kids how motivated some of them can become when they have something concrete to strive for. But I feel torn.”

What do YOU think? Are there some occasions where the use of extrinsic motivators is a sound teaching and behavioral strategy? Or must we as educators challenge ourselves to focus exclusively on building the capacity for intrinsic motivation?


Here Comes the Judgment

On the fourth day of a two-week summer institute, in the haze of post-lunch hour fatigue, I watched something magical and uncomfortable transpire. And I don’t think I’ll ever see the role of the teacher the same way again.

Center for Inspired Teaching founder Aleta Margolis, the lead facilitator for the institute, brought the 28 participants to the middle of the room, with each person seated in a circle.  “We’re going to start back up with a simple group exercise,” she began. “Our goal is to bring the group closer together, sharpen our individual awareness, undertake a significant challenge together – and count as high as we can as a group.”

A few people tilted their heads inquisitively. Did she just say we’re going to do a counting game? “There’s only one rule,” Aleta continued. “When two people speak at once, we have to start over as a group. OK. Let’s begin.”

Despite several attempts, the group could climb no higher than six. Awkward laughter filled the room with each failed attempt, and more than one person shifted embarrassingly. Each time this happened, Aleta, in the same measured voice, calmly and clearly repeated the same opening line.

“Ready, one.”

Eventually, after a few more rounds of frustration, the group happened upon an innovation – people raised their hands when they were ready to say a number. The results improved, but still the group could get no higher than fifteen. Then the group ad-libbed another innovation – simply going in a circle.

In seconds, the group reached 100. Mission accomplished! Or was it? No one seemed to feel much of a sense of accomplishment. “That way is no fun,” said one woman. “There’s no challenge at all.”

Aleta asked another question of the group. “When does it enhance the experience to make something easier, and when does it enhance the experience to make something more difficult?”

A young teacher volunteered an idea. “If our goal is simply to count as high as we can, going in a circle is clearly the most efficient way. If it isn’t, however, this method inhibits our ability to achieve other goals.”

“It’s like with test scores,” added someone else. “If that’s our only goal, we can take some short cuts to raise our numbers.  But if we have other goals, it’s more complicated. We can’t only focus on one thing.”

Aleta returned the focus to the game, but not before adding a few more rules – no hand signals, and no patterns allowed. “Let’s see what happens, and let’s see what skills it takes this time.”

As the game resumed and frustration mounted, I found myself becoming more aware of how subtly but relentlessly the activities of the Inspired Teaching Institute are designed to build in the participants the skills of close and careful observation – and a form of observation that can occur without judgment. What difference did it make, after all, how high the group could count? The point was simply to see what the exercise could reveal about human behavior. And yet I watched the ways in which, for whatever reason, this simple afternoon warm up activity had provided the perfect platform for the participants to grapple with the challenge of closely observing something, and participating in it, without judgment.

“What skills are you needing to use to be successful at the game?” Aleta asked.


“Self control.”


“Anticipation. “

One participant articulated a growing mood of discomfort in the room. “I don’t like this game anymore,” she shared, “because I spoke twice when someone else spoke, and I feel like I’m letting the group down.”

“What skill might it take to get yourself back in the game?” Aleta asked.

“I think you need to feel like you’re in an environment that makes it safe to take risks and make mistakes, and that’s hard to do,” said another participant.

“Let’s try playing again in a moment,” Aleta added, “but before we do I want everyone to have the following questions in mind: First, what skill does it take to get to a position of fearless participation as a learner? And second, when it comes to this game in particular, how do you know when to go?”

The game resumed, and familiar challenges returned; the group could still count no higher than 15. “Why can’t we do this?” screamed the body language of several participants, clearly frustrated with the slow pace of their progress.

Aleta, sensing the rising level of anxiety, asked everyone to take two deep audible breaths. “Now let’s consider those two questions.”

“I think the essential skill is not getting angry at yourself if you screw up,” said one woman, before another wondered aloud: “If we had simplified the game, how might that have changed the tenor of this conversation we’re having? Would it be more or less rich?”

I typed furiously, struggling to keep up with the comments and the collective effort to unlock what was leaving people feeling so frustrated. As I did, I thought how notable it was that even on the fourth day of an institute that has intentionally and steadily given a group of adults myriad opportunities to work intimately with each other and develop a trusting climate, the default emotion the game evoked was the fear of being judged for “failing”.

“I’m starting to wonder if my role as a teacher needs to be more about staying open,” opined one teacher, “so I can be more receptive to everything that happens in my classroom. It doesn’t mean there stops being right and wrong answers. But maybe it means I need to shift the way I view the pursuit of knowledge itself, and allow in my own mind for a greater possibility of interpretation. If I do this, will it help my children feel safer to be more curious and fearless about what we study?”

Aleta wrapped up the activity by writing a short statement on a piece of butcher paper: Uncomfortable v. unsafe.

“This is the most uncomfortable you’ve been since we started our work together,” she offered. “But look at how rich the conversation has been. Just remember – in this institute and in your own classrooms there’s a crucial distinction between feeling uncomfortable, which is the space where real learning occurs, and feeling unsafe, which is the space where we shut down and no learning occurs.”


It’s the Relationships, Stupid . . .

I’m spending my days observing the two-week summer session of the Inspired Teaching Institute, a yearlong professional development program from Center for Inspired Teaching, a remarkable organization that prepares and supports DC teachers. The institute, described as “a 100% physical, intellectual, and emotional process through which teachers explore the art of teaching in an energetic and safe environment,” is taking place each day in the wrestling room of a DC high school in a leafy green neighborhood of Washington, DC.

The room is large and open. There are no seats, and homemade signs and placards, most of which feature memorable ideas about teaching and learning, cover the walls:

“A teacher who is attempting to teach without inspiring the pupil with a desire to learn is hammering on cold iron.”

”It is the mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

“To be prepared against surprise is to be trained; to be prepared for surprise is to be educated.”

“The questions which one asks oneself begin, at last, to illuminate the world – and become one’s key to the experience of others.”

Although I’ll be producing several longer pieces about Inspired Teaching and their summer Institute, I want to briefly share an activity from yesterday that sparked an essential insight into the nature of teaching and learning – and what it is we adults must prioritize in our efforts to help all children learn.

Towards the end of the day, Inspired Teaching founder Aleta Margolis, a veteran educator and former actor with an aura of presence that stems from her previous time on stage, asked the participants to brainstorm the first things they thought of in response to the following prompt: “What are the questions kids ask when they’re in school?”

A torrent of predictable answers greeted her request:

What’s that? Why are we doing this? What are we supposed to do? Can I go to the bathroom? Can I get up now? How is this going to help me in real life? Can I go with you? How much do you get paid? Do you have a boyfriend? Can I go home with you? Where are we going? How much longer? Can I have this? Do you sleep here? Can I go to the nurse? What if? Can I have some water? Can you get him to stop? Why is that teacher so mean? Is it time to go? Can we go outside? Can we have extra recess? What’s my grade? Can I do extra credit? Why’d you call my house? When is that due? Can I sit by you? Are you allowed to do that? How old are you? Is she OK? Are you getting fired? Do you love me?

Then Aleta asked a different question – “What are the questions kids ask when they’re curious and wondering about the world around them?”

Can you show me? Did you see that? Can I try? Am I doing it right? Can I take it home? What does this do? How do I stop? Will I get hurt? Will you catch me? How fast can I go? Why isn’t it working? Why is it like this? Will you be watching me? Let me do it.

After both lists were generated, Aleta led the group through a process of labeling every question on both lists into one of three categories:  P – a procedural question; N – a question relating to a personal need; or C – a question reflecting innate curiosity.

Notably, the majority of the questions received either P’s or N’s, and there were few C’s in the bunch. The disconnect between what children ask in school and what they ask when they’re curious about the world was clear. “We’re going to spend the next week and a half and throughout the school year,” said Aleta, “getting students to generate more curiosity questions, and less questions that relate to purely procedural needs.”

As the participants nodded their heads enthusiastically at the thought of the new pedagogical skill they would soon acquire, I found myself noticing something else. The overwhelming majority of the questions, regardless of which category they were in, related to personal needs, and underscored the transformative power of interpersonal relationships between teachers and students.

Will you catch me? Did you see that? Can I sit by you? Do you love me?

Some among us may want to resist this fact and stay focused squarely on instructional strategies and the bottom line of school reform – improving student test scores. I’m reminded of the controversial Charles Barkley “I am not a role model” commercial from a few years back. But just as all athletes surely are role models (whether or not they choose to fulfill the responsibility), all teachers are role models, too, and adults with a disproportionate influence on the lives and priorities of their students.

This simple truth reminded me that although our students need us to provide engaging content, clear structures and probing questions, the overriding quality they need from us is nurturance, support, and a place where they can be seen and heard. It’s about relationships – first and foremost. And strengthening the quality and quantity of relationships between adults and children in a school building should always be our primary improvement strategy.


The Inspired Mindset — Starting a School, Part III

This morning, over orange juice, coffee and red grapes in the theater room of the Capital City Public Charter School, a small group of interested educators, scholars and citizens listened as Center for Inspired Teaching’s Director of Teaching and Learning, Julie Sweetland, explained what makes the Center’s work so powerful.

Inspired Teaching is the entity most responsible for the new charter school (scheduled opening Fall 2011) for which I currently serve as Board Chair. And the event allowed Sweetland, an articulate and charismatic spokesperson, to clarify what distinguishes her organization from other alternative certification programs in the city, and nationwide. “Over the past 15 years,” she explained, “our work with thousands of educators has helped us learn more about what it takes to be an inspired teacher. That works begins with our search for people with an inspired mindset — we want builders, and people who are excited by confronting new challenges in their work, not blockers, or people who would rather do what they’ve always done.”

Sweetland went on to define the three central tensions Inspired Teaching wants its teachers, and staff, to be aware of. “The first is balancing the tension between radical creativity and structured execution,” she said. “The second is balancing the need to be both nurturing and impact-driven. And the third is maintaining an approach that allows for both decentralization and integration.”

One of the participants asked her to elaborate. “We believe that a healthy learning environment must have all of the following: Autonomy (for both the teachers and, occasionally, the students as well); Belonging; Connectedness; Developmentally-appropriate activities; and Engaging learning opportunities. And all of our work is geared towards helping teachers do each of those things at the highest level.”

I urge all of you to learn more about Center for Inspired Teaching. Check out their web site, and let me know what you think of their philosophy. Our hope is that, beginning in 2011, the Inspired Teaching School can begin serving as a catalytic force of change in the city, and spur other schools to invest in the capacity of teachers to keep placing a high priority on student achievement and mastery of challenging material — and stop doing so at the expense of sharpening students’ creativity and intellectual curiosity.


Starting a School, Part I

Thanks to the vision of the remarkable people at Center for Inspired Teaching, I’m part of an initial working group tasked with bringing a new school to life. And, after a three-hour meeting yesterday, I’m struck by the totality of decisions to make — from the sacred (hiring the principal and staff, designing the curriculum, etc.) to the profane (choosing a food vendor, picking office furniture, etc.).

What’s most exciting to me is the chance to help create the central frame on which the future faculty will build — the vision, the mission, the curriculum, and the developmental benchmarks. Already the process is uncovering the core questions that need to be asked in order to arrive at the optimal frame — “What do we want a graduate of our school to know and be able to do?” “What kind of a person do we want a graduate of our school to be?” “How will we identify our developmental benchmarks?” What will be the interdisciplinary elements of the curriculum?” “To what do we owe our fidelity?”

When you have the opportunity to ask these questions before anything has been established, I’m realizing that you must immediately wrestle with a vital threshold decision — When it comes to identifying our developmental benchmarks, will our school be time-based (e.g., grades, annual progression, etc.) or competency-based (e.g., you don’t progress until you’ve demonstrated mastery of what you need to know to move on)?

So here’s my question for you to consider — Is there ANY reason to maintain a time-based system of schooling, other than the fact it makes it easier to fit into the existing system?

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