About 15 years ago, long before my current students were even born, I heard a guy named Alfie Kohn speak at an education conference. I was a recent college graduate and an aspiring teacher, very idealistic and eager to change the face of American education. It was not your typical keynote talk. As Alfie Kohn spoke with humor and frank storytelling, I watched a room full of teachers react — some cowering in their seats and others turning red and shouting. Kohn argued that all external rewards, from grades to stickers (and even just words like “good job”) are actually harmful to students. In his book, Punished by Rewards, he argues that kids should learn because of interest and intristic motivation and not to win incentives or avoid punishments. As a young teacher, I listened intently and vowed to be a teacher who invites student voice and creates an atmosphere of empowerment and self motivation.
This year, I began my Social Studies classes with an activity that I thought went pretty well, but I’m pretty sure it would make Alfie Kohn cringe. We called it “Float Your Boat” — students worked with a goup to design a boat that would actually float, after choosing and “buying” materials such as paper cups, pipe cleaners, and balloons. The winning boat was also judged on creative design, with extra points offered for looking “cool and intimidating.” The members of the winning team got to choose a prize from my newly assembled prize bin.
Reasons I loved Float Your Boat:
- It introduced some of the major themes we’ll be studying this quarter, in an interesting way. We’ll be learning about both economics concepts and motivations of European explorers and colonists coming to America.
- It required students to work in groups and get to know new people.
- It gave us real life situations to refer back to when discussing our class norms.
- The competition was super fun!
Reasons Alfie Kohn would hate Float Your Boat:
- Students were doing a task to win a prize
- Students were working to impress their teachers (the judges) rather than for any intristic motivation
The boat competition was fun, but we didn’t stop there. We used this activity as a springboard to discuss norms for working together throughout the year. We discussed how our class needs to “float” in order to be successful. In small groups, students discussed what they wanted to work on in order to “make our class float.” They also discussed behaviors that would make our class sink. Then we wrote these on post-its and put them in water.
We attached a marker cap to the floaters and a paperclip to the sinkers.
As they went into the water, we typed them up into a GoogleDoc, putting these ideas together to form our class agreements and goals. There were many concepts that I expected to hear come up from a group of 5th and 6th graders, but some new and different reflections arose using this format. For example, for a floater, students decided to add “ask good questions and disagree respectfully.” That came out of a discussion about whether or not arguing was a sinker.
There were other sinkers that we were able to turn around into postive actions. For example, “being rude, mean, and bossy” was on the list of sinkers. We turned it around to say “try to be understanding of others’ needs” on our final class agreements.
We will post these goals and agreements in our classroom so that students remember them. In addition, I’m trying something new this quarter. Throughout the week, I’ll give out little slips to students that are being particularly helpful, doing the things on our list or showing our school’s four social outcomes (community membership, problem solving, self direction, and effective communication). The little slips of paper get our little friend, Tofu San, involved. They read “Tofu San saw you helping to make our class float.”
At the end of the week, I’ll draw a name out of each class container and the lucky winner will choose a reward from the prize bin.
Now you understand why Alfie Kohn might think I’m a terrible teacher, right?
It does, in fact, make my heart ache a bit to offer prizes for students to follow basic classroom norms. Shouldn’t they behave well because they care about the class and the community? Perhaps, but I teach middle school. Some students really struggle to quiet down when the quiet symbol is given. I feel better about rewarding the students who show positive leadership than giving the class a mini-lecture every time they falter, or punishing the students who continue talking. Or the worst thing — standing there with my hand in the air waiting while everyone continues to talk over each other.
I work to make my classroom a place like the one Alfie Kohn describes in this interview — not about compliance but a place “where students are working with one another in a caring environment to engage with interesting tasks that they have some say in choosing.” I also believe that students need structure, especially in a context like mine (a public school with 25-26 students per class). I need to maintain a learning environment that works for all the people in the room, not just some.
So, why incentives? It’s not that I’ve lost my idealism. My 15 years of experience have taught me a lot. I used to work at a very alternative school where students went on expeditions, learned in context, and had a lot of autonomy to direct their own learning. While it was a very special place, and very effective for some, I watched many students struggle — to self-motivate, to balance their own needs with the needs of others, and to push through learning some of the basic skills that one is expected to know in our society. It was a private residential high school, with a rigorous admissions process, and given the choice, students often chose to hang out with friends rather than pursue challenging topics of study. At the end of each quarter, they crammed to complete a bunch of written work to prove they had learned something. Many students dropped out before completing their studies there. Personally, I think it was a tough learning environment because most people benefit from consistent external structures to help them see their progress and meet benchmarks.
I do think other methods are possible. While visiting classrooms in Japan, I was told that Japanese teachers don’t play the role of the disciplinarian. They believe that discipline interferes with the teacher’s ability to be an advocate and coach to the student, so the expectation is that students discipline each other. Based on what I observed, I believe that this works in Japan. Everywhere you look, there is a collective feeling of care for the good of the society, and this is taught from a very young age.
It’s a hard sell in the context of American society, even at a progressive charter school like mine. I once tried to offer students time every week to pursue their own interests and passions without worrying about a grade. Many students said they were bored. They are so used to working based on teacher expectations that they don’t know what to do without this structure. Short of quitting my job and starting a homeschool center where students and parents really direct their own studies, how can we empower students to learn without incentives?
Here we are in 2015. It’s a new school year, and I am rewarding students who help make our class float. Alfie Kohn, if you are out there reading this, what are your suggestions for next steps? Teachers, please share your strategies. Current or former students, what do you find most motivating in a classroom? I’m always learning, even now that I’m a teacher.