If Alfie Kohn was no longer alive, and by happenstance was looking down upon my classroom, he would be rolling over in his grave. That's a lot of if's, and I'm sure he'd have better things to do anyway, like explain to God that maybe tossing Adam and Eve out of Eden was a punishment with little connection to eating forbidden fruit. Maybe, Kohn would reason, he could have worked on giving them an intrinsic reason to stay, praised efforts a little more or something. I don't know, the apple tricked seemed to work out pretty well for the snake.
The point is, rewards do work. A year ago, I would have looked at you crossly if you have said that me. I then would have climbed on my soapbox and exemplified all the reasons that intrinsic motivators for learning are always better than extrinsic. At the beginning of the 2009-10 school year, I announced to my principal that my grad research was on getting kids to read at home without bribing them with free mini-pizzas. Believe it or not, I was actually going to get them to read because I had instilled the desire to read for the sake of betterment. My principal very gently smiled and, in a rather offhand way, said "It sounds like a great plan for your class this year. Although, intrinsic motivation doesn't always work out how you think it will; extrinsic motivation has it's place, too." I was shocked, and chose to ignore that advice. But believe it or not, i accomplished my goal with my first graders. It was hard to instill that inner drive to read at home, but my kids could tell you exactly why they needed to practice reading at home; and at the top of the list was because it was enjoyable.
I started this year with the very same attitude. No, that's not true - I was even more stubborn about intrinsic motivation; after all, I had been reading Kohn et al. for my graduate research all summer long. After the first week of school, I realized that intrinsic wasn't going to cut it this year. Not if I was going to survive. Not if I actually wanted my kids to learn anything.
Now, I'm not saying that this is the right answer. For me, it was the answer that turned my rascally bunch into learners. It got enough of them to stop spinning on the rug and talking over me like I was some chittering squirrel getting in the way of their fun. Are they behaving now because they want to create a respectful learning environment for themselves and their classmates? Not likely. Am I able to squeeze in 3 mini-lessons, 4 guided reading groups, writing with small group instruction and an hour long math block? Yes indeed. Here's what I've learned (for right or wrong, better or worse):
Make it good
You can start small, but if you throw in a really good reward very infrequently you'll always have them wondering when they may get popsicles in the afternoon.
Make it Random
It's all about randomness. Don't let them be able to predict or expect the reward. You have to catch them doing something you want to reinforce, but you can't reward them every time they do it. It works for Victoria Stillwell; it can work for teachers, too.
Switch it up
Never keep the same reward system in place for more than a month. With my class this year, I have to switch it up every 3-4 weeks. Once the novelty wears off, it stops being as effective.
Make expectations clear
I should have put this first. The kids have to know what you are looking for. How can you perform for treats if you don't know what to do?
Don't call your kids "puppies"
They don't think it's funny and they don't like it, no matter how much you are trying to emulate Victoria Stillwell. They will, however, "follow the pack leader" walking down the hall. But I digress.
This has been an extremely hard lesson for me to learn. It stretched me thinner than silly putty over comics; but now I have snapped back and we are rolling. Do I like it? No. Do I like the results. Yes. Will I do it next year? Probably not, at least not to extent I have this year. But you never know; being flexible in your beliefs is a good thing.