Teachers Motivate Students with Rewards
At the beginning of my teaching career, I worked at language schools where ESL teachers motivate students with rewards in class. The students were young learners and they could collect those stars over many classes and eventually exchange them for a small gift like pencils, erasers, UNO, or puzzles. It is no surprise that my two language school in Kaohsiung, Taiwan use the same methodology. In our classrooms, students have always appeared motivated and there are few cases where students are disinterested and didn’t want to be there. But where does this motivation come from?
I watched two discussions on motivation by Daniel Pink and Alfie Kohn which incited serious reflection on how and why students are motivated at my language schools. Watch them here before continuing. Alfie Kohn Video and Daniel Pink Ted Talk.
Why Do Teachers Motivate Students With Rewards?
When examining motivation, the actions of rewarding have proven to not be a successful motivator for students long term. Students in the Kohn/Oprah piece were less interested in completing the puzzle even though they were going to get the five-dollar reward. The Daniel Pink Ted Talk added to this theory proving that even adults in the workforce are not really motivated by the “carrots/sticks” reward model. After watching the Kohn and Daniel Pink videos, I felt confused by all these studies and information. My schools have had a reward system for 15 years. Students can accrue stars (stamps in their communication books) during class time, save them, and then go to a gift shelf and exchange the stars for fun gifts. It may take months to collect enough stars for a big prize, and only a week to collect enough to get a pencil or eraser. The younger students love this. Between 1st and 4thgrades, students keep tabs of their star tally and can’t wait for a few new games or puzzles or stationary that might show up in the shelf. I instituted this star accruing system because this is “what other language schools did”.
After watching these videos and reading Daniel Pink’s book, Drive, I thought maybe we should do away with this star system and perhaps it isn’t even necessary. But, then I thought that even though the intent was to be a motivation tool, maybe these stars are not really motivators 100% only for class participation. They are part of a motivating climate. Hmmmmm.
Creating a School Climate Helps Teachers Motivate Students
When I was teaching, my goal was for all students to speak out and participate. This would happen each class, and everyone would get stars. Most students liked the stars and
wanted more, but some didn’t care. So, I found other ways to get them to participate. Students would get stars and they would change gifts. It was fun. Stars were also a way to score some group games we may play. The winners might get 5 stars…but the losers would always get at least 2-3. The star gap between students at the end of the class was never large. Older students (5th grade and higher) usually were apathetic to stars. Yet, they still attended our schools for a few years after.
Students Are Motivated When They Enjoy What They Are Doing
Kohn states that students will become enthusiastic learners as a result of an engaging curriculum and “a caring community in which (they can) discover and create.” The climate of our school is one of fun, respect, and fairness. Students are given choices at breaktime to play games, read, or chat with friends. They are encouraged to respect their peers and teachers, work together, and do the work asked of them. According to Kohn, this may be enough of a motivation. I feel collecting and counting stars, while anticipating that gift from the shelf is part of this “engaging” climate that is a fun and happy time during a young learner’s day. This is a type of motivation, no?
Is it Time To Do Away With Reward Motivation?
What if I did away with the star system? There would be an uproar for a while for those students that had been collecting their stars with a gift in mind. But perhaps it wouldn’t make a difference at all if the stars were gone. Maybe we have done enough to create a motivating climate and culture. And, we could always add a few more motivating teaching techniques to fill the gap.
To reward or not to reward. That is the question. How should teachers motivate students, young or old?
Robert Minor is the founder and director of Robert’s American School in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. Robert’s teaches young learners through content-based instruction. He holds a B.A from Bowdoin College and a Master’s Degree in Education from Framingham State University. He is a fluent Mandarin speaker and avid hiker. Robert at LinkedIn