A barren wasteland with no smiling allowed. A silent classroom with a teacher standing sternly at the front slapping a ruler against their palm waiting for the next kid that dares to actually have a good time. These are all images people tend to get when I say I do not believe in rewards.
Recently I wrote a post detailing how I reward my students through time rather than extrinsic motivators. One comment I received asked me whether I believed in whole classroom rewards or not, which is a question I often get. The answer is no. I don't believe in the idea of rewards and agree with Alfie Kohn when he states that "Rewards and punishment are ways of manipulating behavior that destroy the potential for real learning."
I believe that rewards twist the focus of the classroom and provides students with a false reason to want to engage. I believe that rewards always end up benefiting the same students and some are always left out. I know some will say that classroom rewards are the answer to that inequity, but ask yourself; how often have you taken away classroom points or not given marbles based on the actions of one kid or just a couple? I know I used to even though it did not reflect the behavior of the whole classroom. So you still produce an inequity because the other kids certainly know who it is that makes them lose points and believe me that plays into social situations sooner or later.
The bottom line for me is when we perpetually stick a carrot in front of students faces whether it be through points, letters, or marbles, we are teaching them that they should not do anything without a reward. So while in the short term it may work to have kids get points to earn something as a classroom, in the long run it is not shaping their behavior to want to behave simply for the greater good. I need kids that want to be in my classroom and I expect kids to take responsibility for their behaviors. So I do not make kids "earn" anything in the reward sense, and I do not single out kids. Instead we celebrate class-wide whenever an occasion arises. Celebrations are given not earned and they can be based on whether we have achieved something or it is a certain time of year. Often students and I discuss how we should celebrate something and it is never ever taken away from them. I never use it is a way to manipulate their behavior or to point out anything. We simply celebrate, and there is always a lot to celebrate!
So while classroom rewards may seem harmless, think of what it projects. Think of what message it really is sending the students. Are we trying to tell them that we do not expect them to behave without some sort of reward? Are we trying to tell them that society will always reward them extrinsically whenever they do what is expected of them, because if we are, those kids will be mightily disappointed in adult life.