Are reward systems actually rewarding?
For almost a year, I have pondered the idea of implementing a reward system. Yet, thus far, I am yet to thrust myself into activating it.
The common consensus seems to be that behaviour change and not the reward itself is what brings about long-term learner-improvement (James, 2016). Is this the reason why I haven’t convinced myself that a rewards system is the answer?
For the purpose of this article “rewards” is simply providing intrinsic or extrinsic recognition or prizes (e.g. certificates) using no particular time-frame. “Rewards system” refers to a deliberate system set up to reward at strategically planned times and for specific criteria (e.g. weekly attendance).
Is the planning of rewards problematic?
On the positive side, constructing a reward system can allow us to experiment with our creativity, as we embroil ourselves in testing new ideas and resources. On the flip-side, devising a reward system can be an onerous experience, particularly if we are in the midst of heavy marking periods. It potentially gnaws at our valuable time and drains our dwindling energy reserves. How can we task ourselves with planning significant learner-rewards and a long-term rewards system?
Have we adopted the ‘lazy teacher’ approach where we consciously choose not to reward our learners? We may genuinely want to reward learners’, but unconsciously fail to do so because we’re overwhelmed with the amassing list of duties and data collection? Do learners seek extrinsic rewards as a ‘token’ to validate their achievements? If so, does this not really matter, as long as we produce improved results and achieve school objectives?
Why you should improve your rewards system
Here’s my 5 reasons why we should revamp our rewards to learners.
1. Rewarding creates better learners and teachers
If we strive for our learners to improve, we ourselves as teachers almost certainly will. If we follow this, we will be a step closer to becoming the teacher role models we aspire to be. Are we mollycoddling learners by ‘bribing’ them with rewards? Is it unethical practice to offer sweets as rewards for success in lessons, when we are supposed to be promoting “Fizz Free February”? As teachers we become inclined to vary our choice of strategy to do whatever reasonable steps it takes to create effective classroom practice.
2. Failure to reward can lower learner-expectations
Rewarding can often create ‘healthy competition’ between learners. It is a way to manage behaviour-related outcomes such as attendance or high quality learner-work, but if not utilised correctly, the ramifications can be increased anxiety for the learners by adding unnecessary pressure to succeed.
Most will vouch by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs. The model indicates that we naturally look forward to rewards triggered by recognisable stimuli. Similarly, consistently applying planned rewards can create learner-excitement and an ethos of high expectations within an environment promoting acknowledgement.
3. Rewarding improves discipline?
A rewards system can bring improved discipline, once coupled with a structured routine set by the teacher. We must take notice of the full spectrum of learners, including those we find to be the most challenging. I would argue that we should even begin by asking those most resistant to adhering to discipline. More often than not, group standards can be raised by creating the platform for individual accolades. Other learners follow suit, and collective-confidence levels can soar.
4. Increased teacher-likeability factor
After all, we know that if our lessons are liked, it largely removes the barrier of teacher-learner tension. Some teachers are innately aware of the looming prospect of learner satisfaction surveys. Is this proof of a more cynical outcome of rewarding to appease learners’ and evade negative criticism? To negate this, we must also centre our rewards towards more long-term outcomes with links to genuine individualised career opportunities for our learners.
5. Sporadic Rewards vs Rewards Systems
It is fundamental that our choice of reward is not a ‘quick fix’ to pacify our learners. Can rewards create instant gratification for them? Yes. But unless a regular reward system is in place, it may catch learners off-guard. The result? They may not produce their best work at the opportune time, if they are unaware of any impending reward. One thing is for sure, reward systems encourage long-term learner progress. It drives teachers to be consistent in acknowledging and reinforcing exemplary behaviour and expectations, both of which can then stabilised in the classroom.
Reflections on rewarding
Are we right to put rewarding on the back-burner because there is no barometer to directly measure this aspect within our teaching? Learners must care about their rewards otherwise it is a pointless task. Ultimately, it is our responsibility as teachers to create meaningful rewards and systems. These must build the platform for learners to actualise their immediate and long-term progress.
Acknowledging our learners through regular rewarding, is the ultimate starting point towards steering positive shifts in behaviour.