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Punished by Rewards

Like many teachers, I find a lot of good has come from incorporating online games into my lessons. When we start learning, a good Kahoot provides questions that students answer on their devices at the same time, opportunities for me to see errors and re-teach on the spot, and an exciting game-show experience. When we are near the end of learning a concept or skill, a good Gimkit allows students to practice online at their own pace and provides teachers with information about their students’ progress. At the conclusion of these games, I pull out my basket of Lifesavers to reward the winners.

I regret the Lifesavers.

Alfie Kohn, an expert on educational practices, says, “What rewards do, and what they do with devastating effectiveness, is smother people’s enthusiasm for activities they might otherwise enjoy” (Punished by Rewards, 74).

In fact, a reward signals to people that the activity isn’t satisfying in and of itself while also creating animosity between competitors. Truth be told, the same handful of students got Lifesavers over and over again, and that reality never sat well with me because some students felt embarrassed that they regularly won and others that they never won. Some students felt pressure to keep up their successful image while others saw winning as impossible and stopped trying.

At times, rewards are necessary. When a task isn’t satisfying, rewards help it get done. For example, one of my least favorite parts of teaching high school English is grading essays. It’s not that I don’t enjoy student writing. I just hate putting a grade on it, so when I have to grade essays, I reward myself with chocolate or some other prize. Lesson planning, on the other hand, is one of my favorite parts of teaching. I like solving the puzzle of how to best teach a skill or concept, I love being creative, and I enjoy the hope of what a lesson might be. Consequently, it’s not uncommon for me to get into the flow of lesson planning and lose track of time. Lesson planning, therefore, is its own intrinsic reward for me that requires no extrinsic rewards.

The objections are clear. Rewards motivate people! Kohn says that rewards “motivate people to get rewards” (67), forcing us to examine why we do what we do. Excellence deserves to be recognized! Must it be recognized publicly? Using one person’s success as a motivator to others neglects all of the research that proves external motivators tend to do more harm than good. People should want to grow and learn and even excel because of inherent joy, not others’ approval and praise.

This year, rather than rewarding students with Lifesavers, I plan to help them keep personal growth charts. We will not focus on winning games; we will focus on individual growth as they record and reflect on their performance each time we play a Kahoot or Gimkit. This is a simple switch in a single practice that could lead to uncomfortable realizations about how entire systems are set up. But, I’m ready for that.

Gina Benz has taught for over 23 years in South Dakota. She currently teaches Teacher Pathway (a class she helped develop), English 3, English 3 for immigrant and refugee students, and AP English Language at Roosevelt High School in Sioux Falls, as well as Technology in Education at the University of Sioux Falls.

In 2015 Gina was one of 37 educators in the nation to receive the Milken Educator Award. Since then she has written and spoken on a state and national level about teacher recruitment and grading practices. Before that she received the Presidential Scholar Program Teacher Recognition Award and Roosevelt High School’s Excellence in Instruction Award in 2012 and the Coca-Cola Educator of Distinction Award in 2007.