Rewarding fraud in our schools

Children who have been taught through reward systems do not make the best choices when there is no one watching to give them something for doing good.

Elementary school 521 (photo credit: Sherihan Abdel-Rahman)
Elementary school 521
(photo credit: Sherihan Abdel-Rahman)
Nothing is more important to Israel’s future than the education of our children.
We must use the best techniques available to both advance academic progress and improve behavioral choices.
That’s why it is so disturbing and frightening to see us revert back to discredited and disproven fairy tales as models for educating our youth.
One of the worst of these harmful techniques is making a comeback throughout Israeli schools: the use of rewards, token economies and positive reinforcement systems. The two arguments in favor of this technique have been shattered many times.
The first is that the world is based on rewards. Salary is a reward. Not so. Adults have choice in deciding what work they get paid for; children have no choice in what they are manipulated into doing by rewards.
This is a major difference. Furthermore, no one gets more money for doing what they are supposed to do in performance or social areas. Salary is a straightforward arrangement. The worker can accept it or do something else. Not so with children in school.
The second argument is that it works. But does it? The true test of any intervention is what a child does when no one is watching. Children who have been taught through reward systems do not make the best choices when there is no one watching to give them something for doing good. If the values children learn are based on getting something rather than being something, they become self-centered children with a sense of entitlement. Children deserve better.
They deserve to understand sharing, compassion and doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. All values that are alien to reward structure.
What does “it works” really mean? For example, if I went to the doctor with a sore knee, one solution to end the pain would be to amputate my leg. There is no doubt this solution would work. But it is still the wrong answer. What’s missing is that we not only must look at the benefit of the strategy but also the cost, and decide if the gain is worth the price. Lets look at the price of reward systems.
Satiation: Satiation means more of something is required to get the same effect. Examples are pain medication or hot water in a bath. I love a hot bath, but eventually it starts to feel cooler and I add more hot water. Rewards are like that. Children never say, “That’s way too much. Please give me less.” They often say, “Is that all? I want more.” Eventually rewards like stickers, food, parties, toys or candy become expected and their effect is greatly reduced. It is a common myth that you can start with rewards and later remove them. This happens very rarely.
Addiction: Satiation leads to addiction. Many children become addicted to rewards and will not work without them. When I taught seventh-grade English, I frequently gave stickers to my students. One day I ran out, and informed my students that there would be no stickers for a few days. A riot ensued. “Where’s my sticker?” “I want a sticker!” “I won’t do anything without a sticker!!!” I discovered they had become addicted to stickers. A parent even called that night to complain that her son was upset because I didn’t give him his sticker. I decided to never use them again.
Hyperbole aside, there is an addictive quality to rewards; and when children expect them, they become dependent on them.
Finishing: In school there is a difference between learning from your lesson and simply finishing it. Did you ever take a required course and pass it while learning nothing? This phenomenon is called “finishing.”
Bribes tend to produce “finishers” rather than “learners.” Children are more interested in finishing their work and getting the reward than actually learning what the lesson is designed to teach.
Manipulation: We do not like it when children try to manipulate us. Yet, when we manipulate them, we teach them how to be master manipulators. For example, giving your wife flowers (or receiving them from your husband) illustrates this concept. If the flowers are meant to show love, it is appreciation, a positive social value. If they are meant to convince the recipient to do a favor for the giver, it is manipulation.
Bribes reduce choices and the skill of making them.
When we offer a child an incentive to do something, we are deciding for that child what we want him to do. Obviously, this is not generically bad. There are many times when we need to make decisions for children, especially those involving safety. But when we decide for others, we take away the ability of that person to choose and an opportunity is lost to teach decision making skills. One way to identify great teachers and parents is by how well they balance telling children what to do and letting them make their own choices.
Increased pressure: The more we tell children how good they are, the greater the fall if they cannot live up to all that praise. Pressure leads to insecurity. It is far better to build confidence from the inside by designing activities that challenge children than to simply reward them. Bribes are threats in disguise.
Withholding rewards can be used as a threat hammer very easily. The truth is that threats and bribes are two sides of the same coin; control.
It is time to stop using reward systems and replace them once again with teaching positive social values.
It is not as easy to teach right from wrong without gimmicks, but doing things the right way has always been harder than fairy tales filled with false promise.
Children are too important to choose easy over better.
Dr. Richard Curwin is the director of the master’s program in behavior disorder at David Yellin College in Jerusalem and the author of 20 books related to motivation and behavior.