This Fall, Let Building Authentic Relationships With Students Be the Best Incentive

In thousands of schools across the country this fall, adults will offer students everything from gift cards, to extra credit to convince students to come to school regularly or to submit required assignments. 

The rewards will be well-intentioned. Over the past decade, as schools moved away from more reactive, punitive measures such as suspensions, many adopted more proactive methods. More than twenty thousand schools now use Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), an approach that focuses more on encouraging positive behaviors than on discouraging negative ones. As part of this approach, PBIS encourages schools to build “token” or rewards systems to encourage good behavior, and countless education websites highlight different prizes to incentivize students.

However, research on the use of rewards in schools raises important questions about the effectiveness of these systems. In one study, researchers paid groups of students across several cities and grade levels to improve their academic performance, but found no statistical connection between students who received the incentives and students who didn’t. More recently, researchers from several universities collaborated on a large study of attendance certificates and similarly found either no statistical effect or a negative effect on using rewards to boost attendance. 

These findings are consistent with research on motivation from outside the field of education. MIT economist Dan Ariely has done research all over the world to demonstrate that higher incentives only produce better outcomes when the targeted behavior is simple or mechanical. When the behavior in question is complex, the larger the incentives, the worse the outcomes

So how do we explain why thousands of schools around the country still use rewards as a central technique despite clear research evidence about their ineffectiveness? The answer is that with everything expected of educators in a normal year—not to mention the middle of a pandemic—we look for shortcuts, and incentivizing student behaviors often seems like the easiest path. 

But like all shortcuts in life, motivating students with material rewards has unintended consequences. When we monetize student behaviors, we create a transactional relationship between students and adults, relying on extrinsic rewards rather than grappling with the deeper question of why we think students need incentives in order to perform well in school. More often than not, the incentive systems also reinforce the same structural inequities that lie at the heart of our systems.

The real truth about students’ motivation is that over the long term, students respond to authentic, culturally responsive relationships, and systems where they have agency and feel like their identities are valued. 

Some schools and teachers are beginning to rethink their rewards systems. Students’ academic skills and willingness to participate improved at one high school when they switched from a rewards-based system to a curriculum that focuses on character development. Some teachers who ditched their rewards systems used methods from Responsive Classroom, while others focused on self-reflection

There are several organizations that are supporting schools and teachers in creating authentic, equitable learning environments that are free of rewards. A few places to start include Building Equitable Learning Environments, Transcend Education and PBL Works.

Let’s use this summer as an opportunity to rethink the ways we engage students. When they return to school, let’s stop offering students meaningless incentives to comply, and instead, treat them as valuable members of our communities, decision-makers, and co-constructors of learning. 

Alexander Seeskin
Alex Seeskin is the Director of the To&Through Project at the University of Chicago which aims to significantly increase high school and college completion for under-resourced students of color in Chicago and around the country.

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