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Why Reading Incentive Programs Have Gotta Go

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The subject of rewards is certainly a hot-button in education. Many teachers love them, with most convinced that they’re essential to motivating students. And nowhere is this more evident than where reading is concerned. Reading incentive programs are all the rage, with schools rewarding kids with everything from stickers to pizza. It doesn’t seem to matter that there’s an abundance of research demonstrating that not only do rewards – including reading incentive programs – fail to work; also, they can sap the joy and motivation right out of the activity for which the children are being rewarded.

A couple of years back I was fascinated to read in an online education forum the comment that rewards “prepare kids for the real world.” I later asked Dan Pink, in a BAM Radio interview, if rewarding kids is similar to adults receiving bonuses for a job well done. He said, “I think it is similar, and I think it’s similarly ineffective.”

Dan, the author of Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, calls these kinds of things “if/then rewards”: if you do this, then you get that. He explained that 50 years of social science tell us they are effective as performance boosters but only for simple tasks “with very short time horizons.” He added,

the same body of research tells us they are far, far, far less effective for work that requires judgment, discernment, creativity, conceptual thinking, and for work that has a longtime horizon. There’s nothing inherently evil about if/then rewards; it’s just that if we really want our kids to be creative, conceptual thinkers – have longtime horizons and not be…just mice chasing after the next bit of cheese – then we have to abandon our heavy, heavy, heavy reliance on if/then rewards in all circumstances.

Dan maintained that the evidence is “overwhelming” that these practices do not work and in some cases even have “collateral consequences that ought to terrify us.”

I’m certainly terrified by the idea of a generation of children who not only fail to love reading but actually loathe it.

The articles of three very dedicated educators, all of whom served as panelists in my Studentcentricity discussion on reading incentives, are well worth reading. They offer additional insights into the problems with reading incentive programs as well as wonderful alternatives.

“Reading Incentives that Work: No-Cost Strategies to Motivate Kids to Read and Love It”: http://llmotivation.wikispaces.com/file/view/Reading+Incentives+that+Work.pdf

“Creating Readers: A Case Against Extrinsic Rewards”: http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/post/creating-readers-case-against-extrinsic-rewards

“Shaming Students One Wall at a Time”: http://conversationed.com/2015/02/16/shaming-students-one-wall-at-a-time/

For more about data walls, read Valerie Strauss’ piece, “How ‘data walls’ in classrooms humiliate kids”: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/02/14/how-data-walls-in-classrooms-can-humiliate-young-kids/

Kathleen Jasper, one of my panelists, had this to say following our BAM Radio discussion:

I want people to understand that this “competition,” this “race” we have assigned to reading and education as a whole, is ineffective. We have been competing with other countries in education since the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957. Everywhere I turn it’s, “We have to compete with other nations,” or “We have to make schools compete for funding,” or “We must encourage teachers to compete for merit pay,” and finally, “Students should compete for their place on the reading wall.” It hurts more than it helps. We need to cooperate more than we need to compete. We should teach students to collaborate and bring each other up. Competition makes winners and losers out of people, which is great for the Olympics or boxing, but it’s bad for education. We don’t want losers in education. If students are “losers" in education, it’s our fault not theirs.


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Rae Pica has been an education consultant specializing in the development and education of the whole child, children's physical activity, and active learning since 1980. A former adjunct instructor with the University of New Hampshire, she is the author of 19 books, including the text Experiences in Movement and Music and, most recently, What If Everybody Understood Child Development?: Straight Talk About Bettering Education and Children's Lives. Rae has shared her expertise with such groups as the Sesame Street Research Department, the Head Start Bureau, Centers for Disease Control, the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, Nickelodeon's Blue's Clues, Gymboree, Nike, and state health departments throughout the country. She is a member of the executive committee of the Academy of Education Arts and Sciences and is co-founder of BAM Radio Network, where she hosts Studentcentricity, interviewing experts in education, child development, play research, the neurosciences, and more on teaching with students at the center.

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Guest Thursday, 19 April 2018