18 May 2008


There is hardly a public school out there which doesn't have some variation of student attendance issue. We need students to come to school in order to move their learning forward---and yet there are a host of reasons why they don't. While I don't want to talk about issues surrounding compulsory attendance measures, I do want to talk about this question: Are we creating a generation of sticker junkies?

In other words, are schools too quick to pull out extrinsic rewards (stickers, ice cream, drawings for prizes...) as a way to promote attendance?

I was thinking about this last week after reading the follow-up article on the Georgia program which paid students to study. (I blogged about this in January...Motivation Matters has more.) Thirty-five students finished the 15-week program.

At the rate of $8 an hour or $32 a week, Jailyn and the other students had the chance to earn $480 by the end of the school year. The amount they actually earned was tied to their attendance and participation.

Taylor said Jailyn put a lot of his money in a savings account.

"We also used this opportunity to teach budgeting and how to spend money," she said. "And in the end, he didn't do it for the money. He did it for himself."

This sounds great, but I admit I'm still suspicious. What will happen in the fall when Jailyn and the others aren't given money to do what they should be doing? If behavioral research is any indicator, the levels of motivation will decrease---and potentially be lower than before the program was implemented.

I talked to an area principal who is wrestling with some significant student attendance issues. The immediate reaction is to go the rewards route. I'm not convinced this is the right path. Don't we first need to know why students aren't coming to school? Will a sticker or a promise of an ice cream bar change that for the long term? Or will it just reinforce a sense of entitlement?

Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but I like to think that one of the primary purposes of schooling is to foster a love of learning. If the school is a place where kids want to be, they will come. Are we creating extrinsic reward junkies in our elementary schools only to have them disengage and drop out at upper grades when the stickers stop?
Dealing with student engagement issues, lesson design, and high quality instruction is far more labor and time intensive than just buying a bunch of stickers, but isn't that what we should be doing?


Michaele Sommerville said...

Oh my, let me tell you how much I dislike those conferences with kindergarten parents when they see their five year old's progress report and immediatly start planning a huge "Good Job" pool party, or say something like "Oh good, M. earned the new Dooney and Bourke purse she's been begging me for," yadda yadda yadda.

For the things that really matter in life, REALLY matter... do you do your best, put in a ton of effort...for a new purse? Nope, nope, nope. Intrinsic motivation is the only way to go. I structure my classroom in such a way to promote individual as well as collaborative and cooperative learning so that positive interaction happens, that "it makes you feel good inside" reaction to help nurture motivation for something OTHER than the gimme-gimmie-gimmies.

I always wonder how superficial people function when they don't have THINGS surrounding them, making them feel worthy. Children should be able to develop a sense of positive self worth no matter how big their parents' wallets are...or aren't.

The parents and teachers that use the sticker/purse/new car reward system bother me just as much as the disciplinarians that start off with public humiliation and terrorizing kids with yelling and threats--- with the rewards, you always have to top the last one...sticker, book, new computer, a limo ride to the pool with forty five of your closest friends all before the age of ten.... with the punishers who start off with pubic embarassment, where do you go in motivating students after your FIRST encounter with them includes public humiliation/calls to parents/etc? A lot of people don't think this through at all.

Because they want an immediate response NOW, no matter the long-term consequences.


kirchy said...

I have always believed that a child who wants to come to school will do much better, so I see it as my job to foster the desire in children to come to school.

I don't use many "rewards" and the ones that I do use are thought out. For example, my self-contained ESL class had a 45% average for reading comprehension on our Accelerated Reader tests and many were reading far below grade level. I offered them a pool party if the class earned 100 100% on AR tests. It took them all the way until the end of April to earn their party, during which time I retaught comprehension stratgies introduced in kindergarten and first grade and focused on our "new proficient learner strategies". The kids watched their AR levels go up and noticed how much easier it was to read the social studies book. They are also able to answer comprehension question using inference and connections.

Was the reward worth the $25? Definately! The kids all learned something even with out daily "You Go Girls!" and smelly stickers

The Science Goddess said...

Whew. I feel better knowing I'm not the only one worried about the junkies many teachers/schools are fostering.

Kirchy---A pool party is an okay idea in my book because it is a celebration of a learning goal...as opposed to rewarding every incremental step along they way. I'll bet your kids had a blast!

Michaele---Here's hoping schools become filled with more teachers like you. I cringe in every classroom that is based on rewards/punishments.

Dr Pezz said...

Our school gives detentions and then suspensions. The suspensions are fairly ironic since students don't want to be at school and then are told not to attend for a few days. I seem to remember a chapter on negative reinforcement...

Hugh O'Donnell said...

I think Alfie Kohn spoke most eloquently about the need to foster intrinsic motivation in students. Rewards (except for daily informal approbation and recognition) just don't cut it.

Students need to be engaged and develop a strong sense of self-efficacy to be motivated to achieve.

I can hardly believe that some educators still buy into extrinsic rewards (no pun intended).

hschinske said...

The only time I've ever seen stickers work is as a record of progress -- I put stickers on the calendar to record my child's success in stopping thumbsucking. The whole point was to see them cluster more and more thickly over the days and weeks. I purposely got stickers that were not in themselves very interesting -- they were literally the old-fashioned gold stars.