When Rewards Aren’t Rewards

Over the last 24hrs, er…, make that 36 hours now, I’ve overheard two conversations, and read an article all dealing with the same thing: rewarding students. Parents are mad, as well they should be. But not mad enough to do anything about it, complaining, writing a letter to the school district, or a letter to the editor of the local paper. Though the last probably wouldn’t work; our local editor acts more like a local censor.

Weird. Sitting at a local bookstore drinking coffee, I overhear two women discussing their children. Both children like to read, it seems, but are particularly motivated because of the pizza party they get if they read their assigned books.

I listened to this conversation with distracted intent; I want to hear what they had to say without looking like I wanted to hear what they had to say.

On Friday, courtesy of a member of the Twitterverse, I read an article about rewards and how little motivation rewards actually inspire. Actually, that is not correct. Rewards generate a lot task-specific motivation, but do not encourage a lifestyle of good behaviors. The article, and if I had it handy I would share it – perhaps I need to consult my history on my other computer & if I do that I will share, set forth the idea that rewarding students for practicing for tests, etc. might result in a good test (creating a test bias, which is antithetical to assessment, really) but demotivates students once the test period is over. Students are motivated to study so they can have a pizza party, not motivated so they will be more learned.

Then, this morning, drinking coffee at the same local bookstore, a couple and their daughter sat at the table beside me. The tables are very close together; if I itch I usually have to ask permission to scratch so as not to bump my neighbor, and I’m a small man.

Impossible not to overhear, the little girl’s mother began discussing how the girl’s class would get a pizza party (what is it about pizza parties?) by reading and doing well on her reading assessments. The mother was not in favor of this reward. Kids should be reading because reading is good for you, not because your going to get some reward. How good is it to bribe kids to do things, and teach them only to do things if there is a reward? What about instilling kids with good behaviors?

Her comment reminds me of the comment I recently ran across, from 4th Grade teacher, that went something like, “I’m here to teach your kids math, not make good citizens.” Not her comment per se, but what her comment, the previous day’s comment, and the article all seem to suggest: a developing culture of bad choices and poor character among educators.

Recently, I’ve run across a few personalities who seem to personify a “say nothing negative” mentally about education. Education, even higher education, is being victimized by people who refuse to call “bullshit” on poor student work or behaviors. These individuals refuse to tell kids when their work is shoddy, or lazy. These individuals do not want to run the risk of making a student “feel bad,” or “damage his/her self-esteem.”

Really, and what happens when this student gets to college and their professor tells them him/her, “you write like a 3rd-grader,” or “this is shitty, do it over?” Or, what happens when your student graduates from college and their boss fires them after the first week because he/she “relies too much on Word Spell-check and Grammar-check, and your work is shit.”

What kind of message are you sending to your students when you protect them from the realities of college or the Real World? OK – correction; you are not communicating a message. Your educational substrate is sand; while your content may be solid, by treating your students with kid-gloves you simply displace the responsibility of preparing students for the life after school onto others.

You are not helping by being nice. Its not your job to be nice. Making sure your student move forward with knowledge is your job.

I would have loved to have Steve Jobs as a teacher. He either would have loved my work, or would have said my work was “shitty. Go back and do it over again.”

Yes, Steve was eccentric, but look at Apple, then look at Microsoft. Steve loved technology, loved cool stuff, and wanted everything done right. Not ‘almost,’ not ‘nearly,’ but perfect. I never really appreciated Apple before I read his biography. I don’t agree with all of his methods. But look at the outcome.

Apple was a computer company. Then a music company. Then, a phone company. While his computers were unique, they never captured the market like he thought. But they were still moderately successful, when he was in charge. Apple beat Sony/BMG at the music game, with online songs and the iPod. Apple dominates the cellphone market with the iPhone.

Why? Because Steve wouldn’t tolerate anything less than perfect. He said so. He lost people, friends, and made enemies.

When he told people their work was “shitty and stupid” yes, some adults went back to their offices and cried like a baby. Then, they realized Steve was right. They were capable of doing better.

And you know what? They did better.

Bill Gates in the same biography, didn’t agree with Steve’s method of motivating people.  Gates, admittedly a nerd, is a nicer nerd. He was more sympathetic, more compassionate. However, look at Microsoft. Their phones will never grab a significant market share. Their attempts at music have proven feeble when compared to Apple iTunes.

Why is that?

Perhaps we can trace these debacles to a singular lack of vision based on reaction and lacking a spiritual interest in these technologies. I say “spiritual” as I believe Steve saw all of his efforts as extensions of himself. Microsoft’s efforts are aimed at appeasing a fickle bunch of consumers, no “spiritual” or “visceral” connection, and no preeminent personality telling developers, “this is shitty, and this is brilliant!”

There is right and wrong. There is good and bad. There are shades in-between. Telling everyone, “great job!” is a lie, a lie worse than Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. The kids themselves know who worked and who didn’t work.

How do you discriminate among bad work and great work if everyone did a “great job!” They will never find that outside of your classroom. More importantly, your attempt to protect their self-esteem provides them a false sense of self-esteem based on your continuation of lies. So, later, after high school, or college, when he realizes he isn’t as good as he thinks he is, he can thank you.

But, in more immediate terms, you can thank yourself for giving high school students inflated esteem that gets blown away after the first two weeks of college. You tell them, “great job,” and “you’re doing super work!” and then they get to college and discover all of those accolades meant exactly shit, when they fail their first writing assignment, or they can’t read their textbook. Then, they feel crushed, demoralized, and wonder if college is even in their future because you’ve lied to them for 4 years.

I’m not telling you to be mean.

I’m telling you to be honest.

People appreciate honestly. Real, brutal truth.

Honesty builds trust. Trust builds esteem and integrity.

They do not appreciate having smoke blown up their arse.

Rewarding kids for stuff they should be doing anyway sets a terrible precedent.

Being nice to buffer a child’s self-esteem can be ultimately damaging later.

Don’t be mean.

Be honest.

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