Thursday, March 7, 2013

On Being One of the Extrinsic Rewards

extrinsic rewardsMost schools are full of extrinsic rewards. Teachers and principals use rewards and punishments to encourage students to do what we want them to do. It's been this way for a long time. It's the way my teachers tried to motivate me, and it's how I originally learned to "manage" my students. Yet, as I've continued learning as a teacher and dad, I've started to reconsider extrinsic rewards.
I'm not much on extrinsic motivation any more. I've read Dan Pink's Drive, and it resonated with me. I've also become a fan of Alfie KohnJoe Bower, and Chris Wejr. I firmly believe internal drive is the best motivation and one should do the right thing because it's what he knows is right--NOT because there's a carrot dangling at the end of the stick. I want my students to try because they want to improve and because they feel empowered to learn. I want my own children to have that drive, too, and so I've tried to reinvent the ways I motivate and encourage kids. (I admit I often revert to rewards and punishments when I become reactionary, but I'm working on it.)
I'm a 6th grade reading teacher in an elementary school that long ago fully embraced the Accelerated Reader program. We are all about AR at my school. Last year was my first year in an elementary school. It was my first time to really experience the madness that is AR at PDS. It's over the top. We have all kinds of rewards and many levels of achievement where students receive prizes. The whole thing culminates in an enormous AR auction at the end of the year, and if I gave details of the event you'd claim they were hyperbole.
I understand and appreciate what we are trying to do with AR. We want our boys to read. We want then to read often, and we want them to read well. We hope to develop life long readers, and yes, we have many boys that are amazing readers. And yet, the AR system of extrinsic rewards makes me uncomfortable. I just don't like it.
My son Sam is a 5th grader at my school, and he is an avid reader. He's always got his nose in a book. He gets that from his mother. Sam reads because he loves it. He's a sucker for a good story and enjoys talking about what he reads. I don't doubt his motives for reading, but he also gets pretty excited talking about his AR points, too. I worry that when the extrinsic rewards of AR are gone Sam's enthusiasm for reading will also wane. I hope I'm wrong, but I still worry.
Yesterday, teachers passed out AR prizes. Sam had read enough books to win a certificate allowing him to go out to lunch with the teacher of his choice. He could not wait to tell me about it when he arrived in my room after school, and I did my best to look happy as he reported his winnings. Then, with a big smile he showed me his certificate and said, "And look, Dad, I get to go out to lunch with any teacher of my choice. Guess who I choose?"
I looked back at him baffled.
"You!" he said.
I'm still not a huge fan of extrinsic rewards especially in regards to reading. I'm still pretty certain extrinsic rewards are not in kids' best interests, but for the moment--at least for today-- as a dad, I'm okay with being one.
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