(This is a reprint of an editorial Aleta Margolis wrote in 2004)
I just finished doing the dishes and I am rewarding myself with 2 cookies. It changed my whole outlook on cleaning the kitchen…I worked quickly, and even smiled as I envisioned myself sitting at a freshly cleaned kitchen table with two chocolate chip cookies and a big glass of milk.
Doing dishes is drudgery, a necessary evil, a means to an end. It’s something you just jump into, rubber gloves and all, and get it over with. There’s little inherent enjoyment. So it’s nice to know there’s a cookie (or 2!) waiting when it’s over.
School’s the same way. You get through the homework, the worksheets, the textbook, the chapter test, and—more likely than not—a sticker, piece of candy, or even some cash meets you at the other end. And what’s wrong with that? You work hard, you get a little appreciation from the teacher.
Except for the whole drudgery thing.
A teacher’s job, simply put, is to get students to do their work. A common mechanism used to make schoolwork important is reward (stickers, prizes, etc.) and punishment (detention, missed recess, etc.). This is usually carried out with little thought or concern as to the long term impact on children.
But it merits further investigation. We ought to wonder what message children receive when they are routinely rewarded with stickers, candy, cash, and the like for completing their schoolwork or for behaving in class.
They might be receiving this message:
Schoolwork is drudgery. We, your teachers, sympathize with you—so much so in fact that we’ll give you something good to look forward to once you get your schoolwork over with. (If you doubt that schoolwork is drudgery, ask yourself: Would I enjoy math worksheets? Reading aloud from a textbook, one paragraph at a time? Memorizing the Preamble to the Constitution?)
Or this one:
We don’t expect all that much of you. So when you do complete an assignment, or do something nice for a classmate, we’re so excited that we’ll reward you, in hopes of getting you to keep on working and/or behaving.
Or, worst of all, this one:
There’s no joy in learning—so do it for the cookie.
I’m not suggesting that teachers should be in the business of making schoolwork easy, or even fun. Far from it. I am suggesting that schoolwork should be interesting, challenging, worthwhile, and nothing at all like drudgery.
Effective teachers take on the difficult and complex task of making schoolwork itself important. They take the time to find out what’s interesting and exciting about math, reading, science, etc., and start there with students. This isn’t just about making kids feel good: when schoolwork is inherently interesting, students work harder, and learn more.
Rewards don’t cause boring teaching, but they do help facilitate it. Students will put up with a lot more drudgery if they know they’re working for a reward.
School without the cookies can be pretty bland. If you take away rewards, school is a lot like doing the dishes. We need to take a careful look at what we ask children to do in school and make sure it’s worthwhile