Using Rewards in Lessons
Found in: Practicing & Playlists
Elaine F., South Carolina
Would you be interested in a discussion about the effect of using rewards? I’m referring to the issues Neil brings up on the recording, Moving Forward– that it’s difficult to have the kind of relationship needed to support long term progress if you use lollies.
This past year I had students earning rewards for every 50 days of consecutive practice. The details are a bit more complex but beside the point, I think.
My experience is that the students who were going to practice a lot without the system in place did so, and those that were less conscientious started out playing more regularly — then dropped off. And worse, I had the creeping realization that students were not practicing well– but they had practiced every day and so earned the rewards which I ended up feeling angry about. I chose not to address this part of it because there were only 2 weeks left in the semester and it seemed to be best chalked up to Lessons Learned.
I did borrow the wonderful form KEEP THE PLAYLIST ALIVE that someone posted here and used ideas from it for students over the summer– wondering how it would turn out. I’m gone for several months and wanted some way for them to work with the playlist that was a bit different.
I’m not planning to do the rewards thing again– I don’t see it being harmonious with a requirement based studio. And I don’t think the time to figure out if the 7 days of practice was really good practice, etc.
Mark M., New York
As with many things suggested by Neil, there is often a huge body of research and argument from relevant fields backing him up, and I believe that’s the case here.
That said, there is a difference between general relationships and learning skills. In a context where a student comes to a teacher explicitly expecting to be taught, wanting to learn how to do something well and how to assess whether progress is or isn’t being made, the situation is a little different. There certainly can be appropriate praise and criticism in a learning environment. But even then, apparently research shows that it’s most effective to keep it focused on the nature of the learning itself and be as specific and timely as possible — “you did that particular thing really well” and “that particular thing could use some work of this kind.” Praise and criticism of this kind are not, per se, rewards and punishment. Going to awards and prizes seems to cross a line where in subtle ways the students start doing things for the award, for the prize, for the pat on the head and the kind word — and this does seem to pose some threat to the long-term cultivation of skill and self.
Indeed, perhaps the real revelation is that rewards and punishment are two sides of the same coin. If one feels strongly against punishment — slapping hands, berating, etc. — it’s been shown to be really consistent to therefore also feel strongly against rewards. It’s a more pleasant face put on the same results.
I understand why some people are inclined to cross that line, and I’m sure that at times I myself do as well, but I always try not to, and I always try to catch myself and course-correct when I do. I think in the end both the students and I as a teacher are better off in countless ways as a result.
Dixie C., Washington
I’m the one who submitted the summer “Keep Your Play List Alive” contest. I’ve really enjoyed reading the comments concerning extrinsic rewards. I, too, do not advocate using extrinsic rewards to promote/manipulate practice or other such expected behaviors. In fact, recently a mother of one of my students was thinking of putting him in with a traditional teacher who didn’t require parental practice support. She said the teacher had all kinds of points & rewards for encouraging practice that she thought would appeal to her son. Whereupon I asked the parent why the teacher finds it necessary to use outside incentives to get her students to practice, & pointed out that my students don’t get these kinds of incentives because they don’t need them. I didn’t say it to this parent, but I know this teacher personally, & she has said she knows her students like to get the points, etc., but “what else can (she) do”?
Having said this, I also believe there’s a big difference between rewards for expected/required behaviors or tasks, & awards/prizes for going above & beyond. I believe this contest doesn’t violate my stand against extrinsic reward systems. I purposely made it so that a student gets no prize just for practicing as they are expected. In order to get even a $2 B&R gift coupon, they must go above & beyond. It’s really just a way to add a little fun into their summer music-making. Kind of like a library summer reading program.
Incidentally, sales companies offer bonuses & awards all the time for going above & beyond what’s expected. A friend of mine who teaches middle school won a Teacher of the Year award from Disney–several thousands of dollars as well as a free trip to Disneyland for him & his family, & several other perks. So I think this game is similar to a “real world” experience for the kids as well.
Sheri R., California
I’ve gone back and forth over the years and read various things and thought various things about this subject. I am not dogmatically opposed to praise or punishment and think they both have their place if used judiciously. They can both be overused and can also be unbalanced if one is used to the exclusion of the other. But compliments can be wonderful and consequences can be a good learning opportunity. I think it’s the extreme use of either that can cause harm.
Where I am now is this–maybe along the way of getting some kind of extrinsic rewards (I think mostly this should come from parents as there can’t easily be lying there) the kids will eventually gain the intrinsic rewards. When parents complain about having trouble getting their kids to practice it’s back to foundation conversation but I don’t have any qualms about suggesting parents attach perks to the expected practice behavior. For example, for every 20 minutes of practice they get to watch a 30 minute tv show or whatever works for their family.
Last year my daughter tried to convince me that grades didn’t matter and C’s were fine as they are average. I told her in our family a C is fine if you have to work for it but you show up to class and get Bs. I wanted to see some effort so I told her I’d pay her for As. It worked–I wanted to see her putting in not necessarily maximum effort (although that would have been nice) but at least see her stretch beyond what came easily to her. She didn’t care about the grades so that wasn’t motivating. She needed money and so that was. And in the process maybe she learned better study habits and for sure she learned more about the subjects she was studying even if she didn’t want to. Will she be intrinsically motivated to get A’s next year? I doubt it but someday she may be and in the meantime I don’t think I am robbing her of developing that down the road.
After all, how many people would keep doing their job if they didn’t get paid? The paycheck is the reward! People who are independently wealthy can afford to be very picky with what they do with their time and let’s face it, most people don’t love their jobs. At the end of the day we’re working for that paycheck. (And even though we Simply Music teachers are some of the luckiest people in the world to be doing what we are doing, part of the reward, our paycheck, is extrinisic.)
The nice thing about piano is that eventually there will be intrinsic rewards for pretty much everyone who sticks with it through the down times when they hate playing. If extrinsic rewards get them through those times, why not? Without them, probably even more people would quit than do now.
So bottom line is I see nothing wrong with parents motivating their kids to fulfill certain things based on extrinsic rewards. When my kids were young I didn’t train them like dogs, giving them treats for right behavior. I taught by example and they knew my expectations. No rewards for being good, moral people and doing the right thing–that was expected from a young age.
I suppose if parents started talking to their kids, starting from pre-school age, about the expectation that their kids will be in piano lessons throughout their childhoods the parents will have built in a little bit of a buffer against regular complaints as the kids just know it’s going to part of their life, like school or church. Most kids and parents don’t start talking and thinking about piano lessons until way past toddlerhood, so kids know it’s an elective and it is hard for parents, although less so now with the foundation conversation, to get kids understanding the non-negotiability of practice.
I think teachers who teach Kindermusik have a big advantage as they can prime the parents with the wee ones so that by the time they are in piano lessons everyone is on the same page and extrinsic rewards are not nearly as or even at all necessary.
But everyone knows piano lessons are really an elective in people’s lives if this early foundation wasn’t spelled out. So if extrinsic rewards from parents help students do what is required to gain the skill (not rewards for just above and beyond but even for the minimum requirements) eventually the skill is learned and the rewards become intrinsic.
For my daughter, her getting A’s wasn’t going above and beyond, it was doing what I thought she should be doing as it didn’t require huge reserves from her, just an appropriate degree of effort. It was not acceptable to me that she be lazy. If she wants to be lazy later after she grows up it’s out of my hands but before then she may develop the habit (and like it too!) of not being lazy by my providing cash value. Of course if she gets another source of income before she’s up and out she may resort to laziness when it comes to school but I’ve thought of that and decided her abilitiy to have a job will be tied to keeping her grades up–kind of like being on sports teams is tied to grades. Seems okay to me.
By the way, I am going to give my students Dixie’s playlist contest–I think it’s full of great ideas for motivating students and some will no doubt really love trying to do as many as possible. Perhaps not even necessarily for the ice-cream cone but because there really are some fun things there. But if the ice-cream cone motivates so be it.
Sorry so long and schools out for summer so there are oodles of kids being intrinsically motivated right now to pack as much fun as possible into the next 75 days! Enjoy your summer fellow Americans!