If we step back and look at the bigger picture, we see then that the real choice is not between rewards and punishments, but between Theory X and Theory Y. If we believe in the assumptions of Theory X, our classroom management will center on the issue of control. We will, as author Stephen Covey puts it, â€œassume that people have to be tightly supervised if theyâ€™re going to produce or perform well.â€ As teachers, if we believe our students will not put forth adequate effort on their own, then we will deem it necessary to incorporate rewards and/or punishments into our management plans. We will find ourselves offering stickers to improve spelling scores, distributing table points in exchange for smooth transitions, and giving marbles to straighten our lines.
However, if we embrace the ideas of Theory Y, then we will not rely on extrinsic motivators due to our belief that all students possess intrinsic motivation and due to our understanding of the dangers that extrinsic incentives present. A belief in Theory Y means that we hold very different assumptions about our kids and will manage them accordingly. Rather than emphasizing control, our paradigm, according to Covey, will be one of â€œrelease.â€ Under this paradigm, we assume â€œthat, given the freedom, opportunity, and support, people will bring out the highest and best within them and accomplish great things.â€ (Also from Covey) We further assume that students can and will put forth substantial effort on their own in the service of objectives to which they are committed.
Teachers and students will only achieve true quality in classrooms and schools managed according to Theory Y assumptions. In fact, it is impossible to implement the Eight Essentials I describe in my book Eight Essentials for Empowered Teaching and Learning, K-8 in the type of coercive and controlling environment necessitated by a belief in Theory X. How can you increase the enthusiasm of your students when rewards decrease interest? How can you build strong, trusting relationships among members of your classroom when rewards rupture relationships? How can you foster the development of self-directed, responsible learners when rewards control behavior and thwart the development of responsibility? How can you encourage kids to play with possibilities and follow hunches when rewards discourage risk-taking? How can you foster a spirit of group problem-solving and continuous improvement when rewards ignore reasons? Why would you spend one minute on training when you could always offer a reward to elicit desired behavior? The problems that rewards present only serve to undermine the worthwhile purposes set forth in a class mission statement.
Intrinsic motivation is the fuel that powers the quality engine. The pursuit of quality requires a tremendous amount of motivation, and the only true motivation comes from inside. According to Alfie Kohn, whose Punished By Rewards is, in my opinion, the definitive work on this topic, â€œIf our goal is quality, or lasting commitment to a value or behavior, no artificial incentive can match the power of intrinsic motivation.â€ Intrinsically motivated people â€œpursue optimal challenges, display greater innovativeness, and tend to perform better under challenging conditions.â€ (This quote is also from Kohnâ€™s book.) Author Lee Jenkins, in his book Improving Student Learning, asserts that student enthusiasm is the number one asset that any school possesses. I believe intrinsic motivation to be just as important a commodity, worthy of similar attention, emphasis, and protection.
The good news is that we, as teachers, have tremendous influence over our studentsâ€™ level of intrinsic motivation. There are certain practices that nurture it and others that destroy it. Our job is to eliminate the forces that destroy intrinsic motivation (e.g., fear, coercion, competition, blaming, ranking, and failure) and commit ourselves to promoting those that strengthen it. I describe these nurturing forces in future blog posts.