Clarification Regarding Incentives, Rewards, and Employment

An incentive, such as money, can be a motivator. Receiving money, which occurs after the action, is the external reward.

It is important to remember, however, that the reward teachers (and other working adults) receive can be such things as satisfaction from doing creative work, watching the young grow and mature (or customers have success with a service or product), and developing strong relationships (with students, co-workers, clients, etc.).

In any case, the adult’s reward is not money. Yes, money is an incentive for wanting to be hired, but money is not the reward for working. Once someone is employed, a social contract has been created: salary/compensation IN EXCHANGE FOR a service. A salary is not a bribe in the same sense that some teachers and parents use rewards to manipulate young people.

The assumption that adding incentives always helps learning is false. In fact, there are circumstances in which adding an incentive competes with other motives and diminishes their impact. Psychologists have known this for more than 30 years.

In one example, nursery school children were given the opportunity to draw with special markers. After playing, some of the children were given “good player” awards. Later, the markers were reintroduced to the classroom, and researchers kept track of which children used them. The youngsters previously given awards were less likely to draw at all and drew worse pictures than those who were not given awards.

Why did this happen? Children draw because drawing is fun. The rewards for drawing are intrinsic to the activity itself.

The “good player” award is aimed at giving children another reason to draw: to earn a reward. Children want recognition. But the chance for recognition undermines the fun, so that later, in the absence of a chance to earn another award, the children are no longer interested in drawing.

The intrinsic rewards of learning aren’t working for many young people today. And all the incentives, rewards, and bribes that schools and even parents implement will make the learning problem worse in the long run, even if it improves achievement in the short run. Perhaps worse, utilizing incentives to learn will distract us from a more important question: What makes schools so dystopian that they turn eager-to-learn primary students into older, unmotivated ones?