Motivating, Without Trick-or-Treating

I recently saw an article online discussing the pros and cons of motivating kids to do well in school with candy.  It’s from this past December, but @ExitTicket just tweeted it out from their blog, so I read the article and became interested.  You can view the article by clicking here.

This is an often debated topic.  I choose not to use candy, or any food, to motivate in my classroom for three main reasons:

  1. Food is distracting and messy – Have you ever tried to do work with your favorite piece of candy or favorite food sitting on the desk right in front of you, begging to be eaten?  I have, and it doesn’t work!  Instead of focusing on the task at hand, I focus on how delicious the piece of food would be, and can’t stay on track.  The same thing happens in the classroom with kids.  Furthermore, wrappers, spilled drinks, and crumbs all add mess and chaos to a classroom.  I prefer my classroom to be neat, clean, and organized, which creates a calming, focused, and inviting atmosphere for learning.
  2. Restrictions and allergies – There are way too many food allergies and food restrictions that exist to prompt me to bring candy into the learning environment.  It’s frightening to think a kid would eat something he or she isn’t supposed to because he or she didn’t know what was in the food, or didn’t want to seem different in front of the other students.  Also, diet is an important issue as of late, and encouraging kids to eat the right foods is important, especially at these impressionable ages.  I would never risk making a kid sick, or making a kid feel uncomfortable, when the ultimate goal is learning, not indulging.
  3. Intrinsic, rather than extrinsic, motivation is better – Extrinsic rewards appear to work in the short term, but don’t have lasting effects that intrinsic rewards do.

I’d like to elaborate on point number 3, since that to me is the most impactful.  Rewarding with candy or something tangible that students really want has its immediate benefits.  It can elicit a behavior on the spot, prompting students to do what you want them to do, whether it be participating, completing homework, or arriving to class on time.  Kids are happy because they are rewarded with something they want, and teachers are happy because kids are doing what they need to be doing.  The question a teacher should ask him/herself is: are my students engaging in this behavior for the right reasons?

Ultimately kids come to expect the tangible reward, for example: “I did my homework, this week, why didn’t I get a piece of chocolate?”  Or, “I really want to eat that cookie, so I’ll just complete this task as quickly as possible.”  With so much attention being put on the reward, the goal of the lesson could get lost, and the reward becomes counterproductive.  We want to teach our kids to persevere, to use grit in solving problems and engaging in activities, and to want to learn, rather than to want a reward.  What we don’t want is to train our kids using extrinsic motivation.  If our kids are intrinsically motivated, they will ultimately be engaged and driven to do well, simply for the sake of doing well!  It might take longer than the immediate gratification of extrinsic motivation, but will be more impactful and for the right reasons.  For example, instead of presenting sweets as a reward before you are trying to elicit a behavior, provide positive reinforcement in the form of feedback and praise after the behavior has already been done!  When kids are greeted by the positive reinforcement, such as a smile, compliment, or praise, they should be motivated to elicit the behavior again in hopes of receiving more positive reinforcement.  It creates an overall positive atmosphere in the room, and kids can feel good about their learning and progress, not about how many candies they can earn in one class period.  There is an abundance of research and writings on positive reinforcement and motivational techniques, much more so then what is discussed in this article, and educating oneself on these best practices is a great step in professional development to improve one’s own teaching practice.  Use what makes the most sense for you, for your students, and for your classroom environment.

Finally, it’s natural to discuss grades when discussing motivation in the classroom.  Grades certainly act as a reward for achievement, but rather than food, grades have a lasting impact on our kids’ futures.  On a basic level, good grades help make a student’s GPA high, which could help students get into great colleges or get their first jobs.  However, there is a current movement to ditch traditional grading systems and provide more qualitative feedback to our students so they can be motivated to improve upon their learning.  Project-based assessments with detailed rubrics can achieve this goal.  Despite state requirements in testing and grading, I’m curious to hear from others if you’ve moved away from traditional rewards and grades (food or otherwise) in order to positively impact student learning.  Personally, as a teacher always trying to enhance my craft, I look for productive and detailed feedback that I can use to improve.  Our students deserve the same, so let’s give them what they need: a combination of non-tangible, motivating positive reinforcement and qualitative, detailed, easy-to-understand feedback with practical suggestions for improvement.  These are truly the types of rewards that could go a long way in eliciting positive behaviors in our kids.

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