Ensuring Rewards are Effective

An email arrived in my mailbox inviting our family to our Year 13 son’s prize giving as he was receiving a prize. This was not the whole school prize giving, it was the Te Hotuwaipara Maori Student Achievement Evening.

My grandmother was quarter Maori and rightly or wrongly I have registered my children in school as Maori students, knowing that schools are afforded more funding for Maori students. I have had no expectation that my children will benefit from the extra funding, and knew it would in a very small way boost the funding for the school.

Now 13 years of schooling later we receive the email. To place this email in context, this is the first time in 13 years our son has been given an award. He is an average student at best, and has struggled in his final year from what Sal Khan, from Khan Academy referred to as the Swiss Cheese Effect.

Our Mr 17 has a natural aptitude for learning languages and long distance running, just not the traditional academic subjects. He also displays leadership qualities as the leader of the school Civil Defence team and the deputy Cultural Service captain. This year he has diligently attended his assigned Year 9 class form time each day albeit with frustration and exasperation about their behaviour and attitudes.

Mr 17 and I debated the merits of going. What is the purpose of a prize giving? To celebrate achievements? Whilst we understood this, he clearly had no idea what he has done to warrant a prize.

So which prize might he get? Neither of us knew and it seems a bit of a mystery. We registered to attend and pondered.

Making rewards effective:
Eric Jensen, a world renowned brain researcher, suggests for rewards to be successful, they must have two elements; be predictable and have market value.

Predictability means students need to know how the system works. A surprise or random reward does not have the desired effect, to reinforce positive behaviour so it will be repeated. Often in reality how the system works is different from what is perceived.

The majority of students love receiving awards – it is a multi-sensory experience with their name being called out, the visual certificate being presented and the feeling of pride in front of their peers. Not to mention the kudos of taking the award home. When students are motivated through these extrinsic experience they will want to repeat the experience over and over again. Once recognised for an achievement this is likely to increase their efforts in that area. This is the ideal desired by many teachers.

The reality is often very different. Ten minutes before assembly, the teacher remembers -certificates! They rush to their register and search to see who has not had one this term. Once located, they think; “What has this student done well this week?” When the skill or subject has been identified a certificate is written and presented at assembly. The student receives the acknowledgement, enjoys it and works harder in that subject for the next week, hoping to repeat the experience. Expect that does not happen because it is simply not their turn. Quickly the extra effort can turn to a ‘why bother’ attitude.

To rectify this, students simply need to know how the system works; that each student will get at least one certificate per term and if they don’t get one this week, it is simply not their turn and not a reflection on their effort and focus.

The second part of effective rewards is market value. Have you ever despaired at the student who leaves the certificate crumbled on the floor? This is likely to mean the certificate has no market value for that student. Conversely, some students take pride in the certificate and display these at home.

Depending on the age of the student, stickers, stamps and stars may have value and for others these artefacts have no value. These students might work harder for free time, a treat from the canteen or extra time doing what they love. It will differ for each student.

Back to prize giving. We went with curiosity and anticipation. It was a wonderful showcase of Maori talent, with the Kapa Haka group, a trio singing the new school song (composed by one of the members of the trio) and a solo musical item.

Mr 17 received the prize for Spanish, a subject which is has a natural talent for and enjoys the teacher’s banter and wit. The irony did not escape him. He turns to me and says; “I’m the only Maori student in my Spanish class!”

The whole experience has left us wondering about the validity of such prize givings and award ceremonies. Receiving a prize because you are the only eligible person in the class is not affirming nor motivating.

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Published on Thursday, December 7th, 2017, under Rewards

Winner of the NZ Educator of the Year 2014 and the NZ Speaker of the Year award in 2013, Karen is a sought after speaker who continually gets rave reviews from audiences around the world. Her dynamic style and highly informative content—which turns the latest educational research into easy-to-implement strategies and techniques — sets her apart from others in her field.

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