Rewards can shape behavior by providing incentives for performing certain behaviors. Use of extrinsic rewards, such as money, gold stars, or candy, can have unintended consequences. These include reducing performance by singularly focusing effort on the reward, or making behavior dependent on receiving a reward rather than increasing or enhancing understanding.
Rewards are Either Intrinsic or Extrinsic
Intrinsic rewards, incentives that are part of performing the behavior, like enjoyment or a sense of mastery, however, make the behavior self-reinforcing. Several years ago, I had the pleasure of co-teaching in an Upper Elementary (9-12) Montessori environment. Part of our class culture was that the students took care of the basic care of their environment. As keepers of the schedule, my co-teacher and I made sure there was plenty of time for the daily chores such as vacuuming, loading or unloading the dishwasher, emptying trash cans, reordering materials on shelves, and everything else you can think of that is required for a busy classroom to maintain the environment. Mid-way through the school year, many students started to complain about how some people didn’t do the chores they signed up for, that the pencils were never sharp when they wanted to use them, and worse of all, the classroom was grungy and unkempt.
Although the complainants looked to us, the adults, for answers, we redirected them back to a class meeting to work it out collectively. What ensued was a great case for the books. The students decided that they would use a “marble jar” as a rewards system for completed chores. For every chore completed, one marble would be placed in a jar. When the jar was full, they would host a party as their reward.
The first several days of their self-imposed rewards system, all the chores were done carefully and in record time. The jar started to fill. By the end of the week, several students were overheard saying, “I don’t really care if we have a party or not, so I don’t have to do my chore.” The second week, several children were doing most of the chores while others opted out.
My heart dropped when I overheard a student say, “How many marbles do I get if I pick up the book off the floor?”
Time to go back to the group and reassess.
Rewards May Increase Behaviors Not Understanding
This time, I joined the class meeting and when it was my turn, I shared with the entire group the science behind motivation and what we know about rewards. Here is what I shared:
Research shows that people find autonomy (self-directing their tasks), mastery (being good at something), and purpose (having a meaning bigger than oneself) intrinsically rewarding. By providing interesting and appealing work that gives students a sense of mastery and purpose, these intrinsic motivations would provide the incentives to perform the work.
I also shared how their learning environment was uniquely prepared for intrinsic motivation. Dr. Montessori designed a curriculum and materials to be intrinsically rewarding in these ways so that children would WANT to do the work. She recognized that children are curious and drawn to learning naturally. In addition, by following the child’s natural inclinations, it provides students with autonomy, yet another self-motivating reward. In this way, the Montessori Method takes advantage of intrinsic rewards to provide the motivation for children to do their school work in a way that is self-reinforcing creates the desire to keep learning.
That day, the students decided with this newfound information about motivation, that they would recreate their chore system to be more intrinsically rewarding. When a student noticed another’s excellent cleaning or tidying job, they would write it down in their appreciations notebook. When they were especially proud of something they did, they would do an internal “pat on the back”.
Quick Tips for Enhancing Learning with Rewards
- Recognize vacuous praise as an extrinsic reward that may diminish learning; instead, shift your language to be specific such as, “I noticed that when you greeted our visitor today they had a huge smile and seemed to relax in their chair more.”
- Insure your environment is prepared with purposeful activities; older students benefit knowing why they are doing what they are doing.
- Cultivate autonomous decisions in every way you can.
- Notice mastery for your students; for instance, “You’ve been working hard on remembering your math facts and now you’re moving on to your next challenge!”
Have you examined the role of rewards in your learning community?
– By Tammy Oesting
Our ABCs of Learning: Montessori Edition is inspired by the work of authors Daniel L. Schwartz, Jessica Tsang and Kristen Blair, Professors of Education at Stanford University’s book The ABCs of How We Learn: 26 Scientifically Proven Approaches, How They Work, and When to Use which was reviewed on our Great Titles for Educators web page.