Guest Post by Sarah Vegas: What Happens When Rewards Become Punishing?

Readers, please enjoy this thought-provoking essay written by my student, Sarah Vegas. Her words inspire me to do better for our students.

–Jennifer Hurley

Rewards and punishments have become tenets of modern American education. Teachers and educators rely on them for many reasons; to encourage, to motivate, to either persuade or dissuade a certain behavior. Intrinsic motivation comes from within oneself, it is our passions, desires, and inner drive. Teachers and parents can agree that getting students to do schoolwork, especially the kind that isn’t of any interest to them, can be a challenge. They cannot always rely solely on a child’s inner motivation to buckle down and get their work done. Extrinsic motivators, those that come from outside ourselves, can give their intrinsic motivation a little boost; if I receive a good grade on this test, I’ll earn a bonus recess. Conversely, punishing a child who does poorly on a test can also motivate a student to study; if I don’t do well on this test, I’m going to lose my bonus recess, better get to studying. These rewards and punishments work sometimes, but more often than not, they can have the opposite effect. Rewards can make things seem like work, even if there is a natural curiosity to learn the material. If the goal is to get the work done, we need to be asking ourselves what we’re hoping to achieve by using this system of rewards and punishments. Are we hoping for compliance or encouraging discipline to achieve educational goals? I’d like to make a case that our overuse of rewards and punishments in schools has damaged much of our natural intrinsic motivation as students.

We have learned from extensive research that “intrinsic motivation will decrease when external rewards are given for completing a particular task or only doing minimum work” (Morin 10). You could argue that our current grading system dulls students’ intrinsic motivation right from the start, offering a grade in exchange for learning. Children are naturally curious and humans are wired to learn. Instead of allowing that natural curiosity to lead, grades can instead discourage the student by implying “this must be something I wouldn’t want to do; otherwise they wouldn’t have to bribe me to do it” (Kohn 15). How can we expect students to produce their best work when they are subconsciously being told “this is boring and pointless, good job doing it anyway”? If the goal of education is to gain knowledge, the subconscious message should be: “this is challenging, you are capable, and you will be better for it.” Students’ intrinsic motivation would benefit greatly if we took a departure from grades and moved towards informative feedback.

Plenty may argue that this would confuse everyone; how would anyone know how well or poorly they were doing without a clear grade? Those who see grades as a good thing may argue “holistic comment or pass-fail ratings, instead of school grades , inasmuch “passing” denotes anything that’s not “failing”, what then signifies excellence?” This presents a very limited view on why students are in the classroom in the first place and what “excellence” actually is. We have narrowed our focus in education to solely recognize one form of mastery demonstration as the best, an excellent grade on a test. Perfect for those students who are strong test takers, but what about those who struggle during tests regardless of how well they know the material?  What we have failed to take into account are the myriad of learning styles that demonstrate mastery in different ways. A student may perform poorly on a test, but demonstrate their knowledge of a subject by writing an in depth paper on class material or by giving a well researched presentation. We are in school to learn things that are new and unfamiliar to us. We should not be hindered in our progress, or told we do not know the material simply because our test scores can’t reflect our mastery of a subject. Our current education system undoubtedly works very well if the student is motivated by grades both good and bad, but what happens when grades discourage a student to try in the first place?  Research tells us that an over-reliance on grades in the classroom can “undermine any existing intrinsic motivation that students might have” (Morin 11), and I have anecdotal evidence that supports this.

My son is a junior in high school. He is very intelligent, and has scored highly on many assessment tests. He is an ace test taker and can offer a thoughtful response to discussions. On paper, he seems like an ideal student who is a high achiever on an academic level. Unfortunately this couldn’t be further from the actuality and he has been considered a “terrible” student by his teachers since Kindergarten.  I’ve spent hours thinking about this conundrum (the word I’ve heard many times, in countless meetings to discuss his “situation”), and I think I can finally pinpoint the issue. While reading “Punished by Rewards” by Alfie Kohn, one idea struck me in particular. Kohn states “What kids deserve is an engaging curriculum and a caring atmosphere so they can act on their natural desire to find out about stuff. No kid deserves to be manipulated with extrinsics so as to comply with what others want.”, and I think that is exactly what Attison has been struggling with – feeling manipulated into doing his work, work he may feel naturally inclined to do but the addition of a punishment has zapped his drive.

In my opinion, there are two things that the current system ignores when it comes to educating students. First, kids are much more attuned to an adult’s intentions than we give them credit for, and they are not always receptive to persuasion. The old “because I said so” will only get you so far; they may be completely open to a task that is assigned to them, even if they don’t find it interesting, but they also want to know the “why”; why are you having me do this assignment? The question and underlying motive is, “what am I supposed to be getting out of this? I see many different ways to approach this so which one would you like me to pursue?” In Attison’s case in particular, however, what teachers often heard was flat out defiance;  I’m not doing this because I don’t see a point. Asking “why” was often reacted to negatively and usually earned him a punishment. Instead of complying, which was the intended goal, he simply shut down and stopped trying. He came to believe asking any questions would lead to being punished, and he wasn’t interested in doing the work simply to comply. Compliance makes things easier for the adults, not the students, by ensuring order is maintained. We lose a lot when we trade compliance for engagement. Every student, even children, should have the right to be an active participant in their education. Asking questions is an important part of the understanding process, and should be encouraged. Being punished for asking the “wrong” kind of question extinguished much of his natural, intrinsic motivation to push beyond his initial reluctance to attempt the work, and he’s not the only one. “Experts have argued that education’s traditional emphasis on external rewards (such as grades, report cards, and gold stars) undermine any existing intrinsic motivation students may have” (Morin 11), and many are making the case for assessments to bring students back as active participants in their education.

Assessments, or feedback, is intended to be seen as information, neither praise nor criticism, and can help students understand what they haven’t mastered yet. They may not have gotten it yet, but feedback can show them a constructive way to get there. Being on the receiving end of too many bad grades can often reinforce the ideas we may have about ourselves, that we’re a “bad student.” In “Brainology”, Carol Dweck explains that “many students believe that intelligence is fixed, that each person has a certain amount and that’s that” (Dweck 1). This is a fixed mindset, and what grades promote; your intelligence is set and your grade is a reflection on that, but you cannot do much to change it. Feedback encourages a growth mindset, or the idea that intelligence is something that can “grow and change” (Dweck 1), and that is what every student deserves to feel. After all, the whole reason you’re in school is to learn a bunch of stuff you didn’t know before!

Offering students constructive criticism would be a real culture shock to American education. It shifts the balance of power in the classroom from dictatorship, where conformity rules, to democracy, where we all enjoy inclusiveness and equality. Being on the receiving end of constructive criticism that is free from judgment can foster a learning environment that feeds intrinsic motivation.  Students would be able to demonstrate what they know and what they have mastered in a way that best demonstrates their strengths, while also providing teachers a way to reinforce areas that need improvement constructively not destructively. Would this take a lot of work and systemic changes? Of course, but our current education system is a social construct and I have faith that if we did it once, we can do it again. Let’s not get discouraged by our missteps in education to date and all the work that will lie ahead, but instead look to the research to make crucial changes. Like Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

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