Should You *Reward* Good Behaviour?

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I’ve been doing a lot of work around Carol Dweck’s Mindset theory of late. This complements the approach I take to engagement in school (or any environment) which I largely base on Ryan & Deci’s Self Determination Theory.

The essence of what I explore is that authentic engagement is achieved when:

  • Relationships have been established built around trust, respect and care.
  • individuals have a level of choice and voice (autonomy).
  • Individuals improve for the sake of improving – not merely for the sake of a grade or a prize (mastery) and;
  • Individuals can articulate the purpose for their undertaking of a task.

I love the thought that engagement is not just about being on task but rather – as Geoff Munns of the Fair Go Project put it – authentic engagement is about being in task. 

This video gives you a brief outline of the Fair Go Project, and you can download the full report here.

Anyhow… I often hear from teachers who having attended my workshops start to question the role of their student rewards programs. Increasingly companies like this one are offering up rewards to “drive positive behaviours in school.”

When I worked in Manchester we did something similar – offering movie tickets or the like – for students who achieved a certain level of attendance, kept out of trouble or generally did the right thing. To put this into context the school I worked at dealt with some significant issues, and – on the surface at least – these strategies appeared to enhance some of the pupils’ behaviours.

Having said that, Ryan & Deci conclude that:

Extrinsic rewards are typically negative because they “undermine people’s taking responsibility for motivating or regulating themselves”. Rather, extrinsic rewards are a controlling strategy that often leads to greater surveillance, evaluation and competition, all of which have been found to undermine enhanced engagement & regulation.

They discuss rewards in education in detail in this article and conclude that tangible rewards to in fact have a significant undermining effect.

Carol Dweck and her research team recently published Academic Tenacity – Mindsets and Skills that Promote Long Term LearningIn it they say:

Although gold stars, prizes, and other extrinsic rewards may have their place for instance, as a last resort to jump-start a desired behaviour or as a symbol of competence and belonging – educators should use them judiciously, as they can easily overshadow any intrinsic reasons for a behaviour.

Clearly your approach to using rewards will be ultimately guided by your desired outcome.

If you’re keen to get kids to comply with a set of behaviours then rewards would certainly support that.

If you’re using them to encourage life-long learning, self-direction, self-regulation or authentic engagement, you may want to rethink your strategy.

4 Comments on “Should You *Reward* Good Behaviour?

    • Thanks Suzy! I love this stuff!
      Really broadens the conversations in schools from compliance to authentic engagement.

  1. Dan
    If you can’t reward behaviour, what can/should you reward?
    Does randomising rewards, like in games make a difference?
    Can students set their own rewards to reinforce their own intrinsic motivation?

    Thanks again for making me think.

    • Hi Phil,
      Only just found this in my spam folder of all places!
      To attempt to answer your questions…

      If you can’t reward behaviour, what can/should you reward?
      Progress… growth? Rewarding behaviour could end up taking you down a path where territory has been marked out by a dog, with an owner named Pavlov.

      Does randomising rewards, like in games make a difference?
      Unexpected rewards, by definition mean that the individual isn’t doing one thing for the sole purpose of getting another… but add to that that ‘rewards’ in games are rarely tangible. They are often very clearly articulated acknowledgements of progress.

      Can students set their own rewards to reinforce their own intrinsic motivation?
      I think in life it’s about a balance. Of course most people require a level of extrinsic motivation. It makes sense that if one was able to select the reward then it would enhance one’s desire to do something… the question is when does that become the sole motivator.


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