I had an interesting conversation with a group of elementary school teachers recently. Their school uses a “ticket” system to reward students for appropriate behavior as they make their way around the school. Teachers are posted around the school and dole out tickets when they observe students behaving appropriately. Tickets can then be exchanged for goodies at the school store. Interestingly, tickets aren’t given for exemplary academic behavior. When I asked why tickets aren’t used in the academic arena, the teachers told me, “It’s like you say in Activating the Desire to Learn and The Motivated Student: giving kids an external reward for learning unintentionally sends the message that learning isn’t inherently valuable.
We’d never do anything like that.” Their comment got me thinking. If it makes sense to abandon external rewards for learning because it devalues learning, why don’t the same rules apply to social behavior? What is the impact of giving kids redeemable tickets when they demonstrate appropriate social behavior? Aren’t we unintentionally communicating to kids that walking quietly in the hallway, keeping their hands to themselves, using their “inside voices” within the building, etc are not valuable in and of themselves? Without meaning it, aren’t we suggesting to kids that appropriate social behavior is worthwhile because it gets them an external reward? For those of you who think that I’m guilty of making a mountain out of a molehill, consider how these programs are typically introduced to kids. What is almost always emphasized is what can be earned when enough tickets (or tokens or whatever the reward du jour happens to be) are accumulated. The kids get all jazzed up about what they’ll “get” as opposed to who they’ll “be.” And when the kids don’t internalize the social values we care about, we complain that they “don’t learn.” But they do. Quite well. They learn that tickets and other external tokens are worth pursuing. They learn that it’s good to get more “stuff.” And along the way, the things we say we really value (like appropriate social behavior) are trivialized, reduced to hoops to be jumped through. When we give kids tickets for behaving well, we are teaching them that behaving appropriately is not inherently worth doing. It’s simply what we have to do to get what really matters: more stuff. If we want kids to develop a true appreciation of appropriate behavior, let’s begin by halting the practice of demeaning what we value by reducing it to a means to buy a trinket from the school store.