Guest post: How we punish our students by rewarding them

Mary Meredith is a senior leader in an all ability school and mother of three. In this post, she argues that the use of rewards and prizes in schools is counter-productive and undermines rather than encourages motivation to learn…

Many teachers are parents of school age children too; we’re the ones who embarrass our offspring simply by making vaguely informed enquiries at parents’ evening. (‘How can she work towards a target grade that is actually lower than her current performance grade?’  – just one example of many strictly off-limits squirm-inducers.)

But parenthood does provide the curious teacher with fascinating insight – one that was encouraged in schools before the Department got rid of all that lefty student-voice, active citizenship nonsense.  Our kids can offer us a refreshingly common sense perspective on aspects of our practice that we have stopped thinking critically about simply because they’ve been around for so long.

I asked mine about rewards. “They’re rubbish.  If you get on with your work without any fuss you never get rewarded. Merits are really just bribes to make disruptive kids behave better.”

This injustice isn’t one my girls get too exorcised about though, because they don’t actually want such goodies at all. “Praise from a teacher I respect means a lot to me. I really like that. House points? No thanks.” My eldest actually begged for a day off school because she was at risk of having to accept a certificate for 100% attendance in assembly. “I’d rather die. It would be so embarrassing!” Oh the irony in that.

Of course, elitists will attribute this modesty to the lack of a competitive ethos in our bog standard comprehensives, or to a culture of low aspiration. But they would be missing the point. Trust me, my girls and most of the students I teach are as competitive as any you would find in an independent or  old-style grammar school. They love good grades, they relish positive feedback, they want to do well. But they see right through rewards. Most adolescents are in fact much more subtle than we give them credit for. What drives them is intrinsic motivation – not points or prizes.

So what about students who are not intrinsically motivated? These do exist, we know that, and I have cited the views of young poeple who have been encouraged to value their education. Perhaps rewards can draw in the disaffected, engage the socially disadvantaged; perhaps they can contribute to the ‘closing the gaps’ agenda and we should all be spending our pupil premium on them.

That’s hokum too – and here’s why. There’s a strong body of research, neglected by policy makers, which shows that rewards actually reduce intrinsic motivation. In his iconoclastic ‘Punished by Rewards’, Alfie Kohn explains that when, in a study way back in the 1960s, children knew that they would be awarded with a certificate for playing with ‘Magic Markers’, they became less interested than they were before the reward was offered. According to Kohn, the total number of studies of this kind, showing how extrinsic controls actually reduce intrinsic interest, exceeds one hundred. For him, “This fact is so predictable that rewarding people might even be regarded a clever strategy for deliberately undermining interest in something.”

What we do when we promise a reward for something is convey the idea that the activity isn’t worth doing for its own sake. ‘Do this and you’ll get that’ automatically devalues the ‘this’ – whether it be a haiku, maths problem or homework task. Psychological reactance theory comes into play here as well – the idea that when we feel our freedom to perform an action is threatened, we experience an unpleasant feeling of ‘reactance’ that makes us want to recoil from the situation. So when rewards are experienced as controlling, they become entirely counter-productive as incentives and adolescents in particular want nothing to do with them.

It’s worth pausing to question why it is that we feel compelled to dangle goodies in front of children when learning is in fact such an instinctive thing. As any parent will attest, toddlers ask endless questions, play with language and number, experiment, engage in all manner of cognitive activity in order to make sense of the world around them. As teachers, we have an ally in every curious child who walks into our classroom.

So why the bribes? Well maybe behaviourism – do this and you’ll get that – is so deeply rooted in our culture that it feels natural and inevitable and therefore goes unquestioned. Rewards suffuse our lives – from performance related pay in the workplace to pocket money and other treats for compliance in the home to a vast and growing array of rewards in schools – they are used to manipulate behaviour. It is the approach that teachers know best because it governed how we ourselves were managed. And we dig ourselves ever deeper into a behaviourist hole – the more rewards are used, the more they seem to be needed.

A relative newcomer to the market is ‘Vivo Miles’, sold like this:

It’s the 21st century right? So when you do something in school worthy of a reward you want something a little more interesting than a sticker or badge from your teacher? OK, so how about something like your own personal reward card that you can use like you would a bank card? And instead of getting stickers or paper slips you get awarded electronically onto your card which you can then use to buy anything from cinema tickets and ipods to mobile phone credits and music tracks? Sounding more interesting? Well Vivo Miles is here and sticky gold stars a thing of the past, at last!

Rewards inflation in a nutshell. It is time we paused for reflection. We can’t continue to simply raise the stakes to elicit “a type of behaviour that the natural force field of the moment will not produce.” (Kurt Lewin). What we need is a serious debate in our schools about why the ‘force field’ of the learning moment is not strong enough to engage so many young people. A preoccupation with rewards and sanctions stifles that debate; it’s a distraction.

We need to return to researchers such as Willaim Glasser who argued in ‘Choice Theory in the Classroom’ that it’s because the traditional classroom environment deprives the adolescent of the need for power, or control, that we lose so many as learners. These are the issues that we should be addressing as senior leaders. We need to focus relentlessly (sorry, Ofsted phrase) on pedagogy, not on what prizes we need for the next raffle or whether to move from house points to Vivo Miles.

Mary Meredith @marymered  is a senior leader in an all ability high school. She has Masters degrees in both Modern English Literature and Special Needs. Her dissertation, which explores the link between language deficit and behavioural difficulty, was published in ‘Restorative Approaches to Conflict in Schools’ (Routledge, 2013) Mary’s interests include restorative practice, mental health and social justice. She has three children and tries very hard to behave for them at parents’ evenings!

You can follow Mary on Twitter @marymered


Your thoughts on Mary’s argument? Do you agree that the use of rewards in schools is counter-productive or do you feel they have a useful role to play? Please let us know in the comments or via Twitter…

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Categories: Guest Post.


  1. Wonderful scientific poll here.  Such a lovely cheap method!  Just ask your own kids and, hey-presto, we know the answer without all that messy and expensive research.

  2. mcgrath_chris

    MaryMyatt marymered Rewards must be personal,not competitive: reward for the progress made towards being the best that they can be

  3. marymered

    MaryMyatt SchoolsImprove Thanks for sharing LauraChildcare I’m especially interested in the idea of shame as another damaging byproduct.

  4. therealmcateer

    MaryMyatt SchoolsImprove marymered great read. Learning is it’s own reward.shall share upon return.

  5. andylutwyche

    SchoolsImprove marymered Very good article – had too much experience of reward systems that don’t work how they should or would like

  6. andylutwyche

    SchoolsImprove marymered In my experience too often the students who often disrupt are rewarded for behaving, which annoys me enormously

  7. snowdropbooks

    andylutwyche SchoolsImprove marymered salaries are a very controlling bribe which seem to work quite well which negates Kohn’s research

  8. KeithMaxwell21

    andylutwyche SchoolsImprove marymered Agree – I think reward systems work well with younger children – research has shown this!

  9. marymered

    andylutwyche SchoolsImprove Such a shame we invest so much time, money and energy into something that clearly doesn’t work.

  10. andylutwyche

    snowdropbooks SchoolsImprove marymered I don’t mean to be awkward but I don’t understand your point. Perhaps I’m being stupid!

  11. KeithMaxwell21

    andylutwyche SchoolsImprove marymered This is real research by real psychologists! But it does point to children of Primary age.

  12. rhcaseby

    SchoolsImprove True that students value teacher comment most, but rewards have a place in recognising effort, progress & contribution.

  13. marymered

    imagineinquiry SchoolsImprove Thanks Tim. Enjoyed your unpicking of praise in Kohn. There’s so much to say about that book!

  14. LornaWalter

    marymered imagineinquiry SchoolsImprove wholeheartedly agree! Kohn, High/Scope & Block’s book No more Ritilin had a huge influence on me.

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