On the Subject of Rewards in Primary Schools. 

On Monday evening @imagineinquiry tweeted 

‘We need to put aside all the paraphernalia of motivational rewards that come along with being a primary school teacher. Stickers, charts, awards, star of the week, special helpers, golden time, smiley faces. The whole idea needs consigning to the bin. None of them have a role to play and are worse than useless, causing actual harm to the kind of environment we are trying to engender where children want to learn, not because we’ve given them a sticker, but because learning is worthwhile and interesting in itself’. 

At first I thought Tim was playing Devil’s Advocate. I’ve met Tim several times and he is quite simply a lovely man. (Take a bow Tim). I struggled to believe that he can’t see a role for rewarding children, in fact I’m still unsure about this. However, it appears to be true, Tim is a non believer. 

This bold statement from Tim engendered a large debate that lasted for quite some time and was rather fascinating to observe and participate in. @DiLeed tweeted 

‘Kids are very susceptible to adult approval. Whether by word or sticker. Not a bad thing necessarily’. She also said ‘you might underestimate the power of your own approval’. I agree with Di on both these counts. @whatonomy said ‘Rewards (used will-nilly) stifle inquiry.  Again, I agree. Next up was @bjpren who said 

‘Better to offer a reward if that’s your thing-at the end of term as a whole class affair’. The debate was growing, many different opinions were coming out from Tim’s statement. Others said that rewards are harmful, only given to the top achievers and not distributed evenly. Fair comment! EduTwitter was divided again. 

I won’t divulge any more of the debate because I believe that this is going to form part of Tim’s new book. I just feel compelled to add my thoughts as I usually do. 

Intrinsically motivated children as we all know are those who exhibit a desire to learn. They pursue the goal for the pleasure of learning and they enjoy the challenge. 

Extrinsically motivated children are those who work better with the promise of a reward or to avoid a punishment. They choose less challenging tasks in order to complete them easily and therefore succeed quicker. 

Looking at these two definitions, it is fair to say that as teachers we should always encourage children to work towards being intrinsically motivated. That said there are some children who have no motivation to learn. They have no role models and no idea what they may gain from learning. There is also another group of children who struggle with this approach, those with behavioural, emotional or social difficulties (BESD). Strategies suggested by NASEN (2012)  include the use of praise and saying ‘well done’ when a task is completed. Also, Reboundtherapy, specialist advisory teaching service advocates the use of imaginative rewards. 

The essence of what I’m saying is, does handing out a generous smile to a normally disruptive child the first time he or she responds favourably to an instruction is surely not harmful. Is a sticker for staying on task really that bad when handed to a child who refuses to work as a rule? I don’t think so. Of course the golden rule is that they should be evenly distributed and not given to the same group of children all the time. There needs to be a balance. I do not believe in handing out rewards whole sale but just sometimes they are vital in helping to shape the behaviour of challenging pupils. 

As I tweeted to @bjpren I have no hard and fast rules. Different situations require different methods. Personalisation, as with everything. 

This is what I truly believe. If it is right for that child at that time, do it. As professionals we shouldn’t be bound by hard and fast rules rules, we should trust our inner instinct and do what’s right for that child and indeed that class at that particular time. 

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