Have you ever walked into an elementary classroom and saw the stoplight hanging on the wall with every student name clothes-pinned on red, green or yellow?
Having a great day? Pinned on green.
Having an ok day? Pinned on yellow.
Having a bad day? Pinned on red.
What about the names on the board with the check marks next to them?
Name on the board? Warning.
Name with one check? Note home to mom and dad.
Name with two checks? Visit to the office.
Marble jar on the teacher’s desk?
Good day? Marbles in.
Bad day? Marbles out.
Full jar? PIZZA PARTY!
How about the sticker chart of mastered math facts? The candy jar for the most right answers? Gummy bears for every five questions you get correct?
Sound normal? To most of us, yes. A great majority of people have grown up in school systems, families, and churches with these types of teaching and parenting strategies.
After being a teacher, then becoming a parent, and now an administrator, I began to question the why behind the typical strategies used to motivate people, and particularly young people, to comply. The following statement continually came to mind and quickly formed the backdrop of how we teach and parent.
What you draw them with, is what you draw them to.
In the above list of classroom management plans you will find that every single one uses extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is behavior and/or results that are driven by external rewards such as candy, prizes, money, or praise.
So what? You got the results you wanted, right? Or, did you?
Is it really that big of a deal? It absolutely is.
Schools with short term goals such as high-stakes testing, teaching to the test, and contrived testing cycles must absolutely control their environment. If they don’t, they won’t meet their benchmarks. When schools teach students what to learn, instead of how to learn, the focus of the classroom becomes meeting all the guidelines. In these scenarios, teachers and schools must control the environment so students can’t misbehave and goals can be achieved.
Controlled students? Color charts. Stop lights. Marble jars. Behavior plans.
Produce the right answers for the test? Stickers charts. Prize boxes. Pizza parties.
The danger of these practices is the focus on short term goals which lead to short term gains, such as passing the test at the end of the year. When you set students up in an environment where their behavior and their academic gains are produced through extrinsic motivation you set them up for long term motivational failure.
The teacher has now become central to the child’s behavior and academic learning. Without the teacher manipulating the classroom and academics with extrinsic systems and rewards, students can’t and won’t behave or produce academic gains.
But the greater danger is that it completely misses the soul. In schools where we can’t talk about God and the soul, the only other thing to do is create a system where you get the right number at the end of the year.
In the classical Christian school, we nurture souls, not simply manage behavior and seek academic gains. This is a difficult task because working with souls is messy. It’s easier to manipulate an environment so students behave and produce academic “fruit,” but this doesn’t prepare them to live in the world. When we take God and the soul out of the classroom we end up with a behavioral view of the world. This treats humans more like animals than image bearers. The mouse hits a lever and gets a treat.
What you draw them with, is what you draw them to.
When we dangle the carrot in front of our students to get the right answer or to behave appropriately, we teach them to love the candy and the pizza party. But what happens when students outgrow sticker charts, pieces of candy, and stop lights? When you reach middle school, what can a teacher offer to compete with what students already have? Cell phones? iPads? Money? Cool clothing? Teachers are now stuck because they can’t continue the system of earlier years.
In middle school years, students should be learning to think logically and independently, and owning their own affections, but instead, their grades drop and motivation plummets because there’s no longer a way to up the ante. Without the reward systems, we are left with students who have never been taught to order their affections and master their desires. They’ve simply been taught to push the lever for a treat.
“Promising a reward for an activity is tantamount to declaring
that the activity is not worth doing for its own sake. This is the
parent who says to a child, ‘If you finish math you may watch an
hour of TV. This teaches them to think of math as something
that isn’t much fun, or has no value in its doing.'”
(Punished by Rewards, the Trouble with Gold Stars, by Alfie Kohn)
This is redirecting affections in a dangerous way. It teaches children to do what is right by catering to their desires, instead of helping them master their desires and order their affections.
At The Classical Academy we teach students the beauty of God and the beauty of academics.
For the student who has become a Christian, they have the Holy Spirit residing in their hearts, and they have a conscience. We don’t need or want a stop light or color chart to tell that child what kind of day they had. Instead, we seek to teach that student to be attentive to their soul, to shape their affections. Not out of duty and not for a reward. But out of a love for God. Why is this paramount to raising children? Because we become like that which we love the most.
For the student who is not a Christian, we are constantly nurturing souls and directing them to Jesus. We don’t control their behavior with external rewards or systems, but instead teach them to make choices. Then, we allow them to mess up. Why? Because the mess is the best place to share the Gospel.
Is this messy? Absolutely. Anytime you purposefully involve hearts and souls, it is very messy. But if there’s no mess, there’s also no gospel, and no need for a Savior.
So why be passionate about classical, Christian education paired with a university-style education? Because it’s not the sole job of the school to motivate. When schools are left to be the sole motivator of students it fails. This is where we need parents. If we offshore the majority of our children’s waking hours we lose the opportunities to nurture the soul, to order their affections, and give them Jesus. The school, no matter how deep its values of extrinsic and internal motivation go, can only take students so far in their personal and spiritual development. It’s why the charge in Scripture about children are directed towards parents, not institutions.
Does this mean there are NEVER any rewards? NEVER any celebrations? No, it’s not that simple, nor is it that black and white. Just like we manage our classical schools teaching people to think and analyze, we want to teach people to think and analyze the how and why of using rewards. But, overall, schools and parents should strive to stay away from permanently placed reward systems for behavior and academic gains.
What might the wrong approach look like?
- Any system or method that becomes your “go-to” to get an errant child back in line.
- ANY TIME you tell a child, “If you get the right answer, you can have this piece of candy/prize, or receive a point.”
- If you win this academic game, you get a prize.
- If you get 10 stickers on your behavior or academic chart, you can pick a prize.
What might the better approach look like?
- A generalized celebration for putting in hard work– For example, the class just finished a difficult unit on fractions. Students worked diligently and put in time and effort to work through challenging material. At the end, the teacher may say, “Let’s celebrate your hard work finishing that unit with extra recess, a popcorn party, or a treat.” But it should never be stated at the beginning, and it should never be for every occasion of hard work. “Class, if you work really hard on this unit, and if everyone gets this specific grade or higher, we will have a popcorn party.” Definitely, no. If your students begin to expect a celebration or a treat, this is a sign you are wrongly motivating.
- One-time celebration events– These are generally okay because they are not set systems that students daily grow up utilizing to form their motivations. These might be things like a Reading Rally- the class who reads the most in the month of March gets_____. Keep these events ordered in such a way that not everyone is guaranteed to win and that students have to actually work for it.
- Report Cards– some parents give incentives for report card grades. Be careful with this! We recommend celebrating hard work, much like an adult might look forward to a night out after a long work day. However, their boss never says, “If you work really hard today, you can go out tonight.”
“Report cards came out today and it looks like you kids worked hard this semester and grew your minds and your hearts. Let’s go out for ice cream!”
- Don’t be afraid of natural consequences– instead of bartering to finish homework. Tell them once and leave it alone. If they don’t finish it, they get an incomplete or zero for a grade. What are the natural consequences of that? They end up working through the summer to complete their curriculum, or retaking classes, or even repeating a grade in school.
It all comes down to the why and how of motivation. Motivate with the right motives and don’t rearrange the affections towards a prize.
When you find yourself bartering with children or providing prizes to behave, to produce an answer, to do homework, to memorize a verse, to produce spiritual disciplines, stop and ask yourself, “How am I ordering their affections?” When you draw them in with the right things, you draw them to the right things. This is ordering the affections.
Ordering their affections towards prizes? Their affections will be ordered towards only that which satisfies their fleeting desires. This is a system that cannot be maintained long-term and it crushes the soul.
Christian schools and Christian homes should not aim for perfect children. You don’t want a perfect child (not to mention it’s impossible). But you DO want a child who knows to go to the Gospel and to Jesus when they sin. You want a child who orders their affections towards truth, goodness, and beauty. Is it messy? Yes. Is it black and white? No. Does it force us to really think and dig in with our kids and their hearts? Yes. Is it hard and sometimes confusing work? Yes. Absolutely.
But in the end, it’s worth it.