Rewards? Learning is the reward.

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I’m so mean in class. It is rare I give a school reward point or much praise. I keep it for special things; really special things.

It’s partly to do with expectations. Mine are high. Therefore to exceed these is exceptional and it is when I may respond with a superlative or reward point.

So how are my students motivated if I don’t reward them? The answer is ‘learning’; learning is the reward.

Research suggests that extrinsic rewards aren’t that effective to motivate in the way we want our students to be motivated. I briefly summarised this in this blog.

I want my students to have intrinsic motivation. I think most do. I don’t really know how it happens though. I teach them stuff, they learn it, they enjoy it, they want more and the cycle continues.

My teaching is not exciting. I don’t plan fancy lessons. They aren’t very creative.

One thing is that learning is organised. Students know what they’re learning and how it fits in on the whole scheme. At GCSE it is physically organised. Their folders reflect the course and its structure. In this, they can see completion and are motivated by a sense of accomplishment.

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Another motivation is that I teach to the top. In every lesson, every child can achieve the ‘highest’ level. I don’t stop this by ‘differentiated worksheets’ targeting each level. They all do the same. At GCSE they either have shown me they’ve included the correct knowledge/skill or they haven’t.


Does it help them learn? I think so. Is it harsh? Probably.

It isn’t personal. It is about one piece of work. It helps them focus. I give them plenty of time to improve and move those ticks left. It then helps next time. 

The feeling of learning is important. Think of when you’ve learnt something interesting or you’ve finally understood something. There is an internal buzz we get from learning. If the buzz is experienced and is accessible, it is enough to motivate.

We do need to be careful though. There are false buzzes out there; placebos. They feel like the learning buzz but are short term and are non-transferable. If a teacher gives a kid a sweet for something a short term extrinsic buzz may occur but it isn’t authentic. It has to be intrinsic; enough to make them put in the effort to do it again. Authentic buzzes cannot be achieved if the work is…

  • Too easy
  • Too difficult
  • Rewarded at the wrong stage

Authentic buzzes are overall better for the teacher and learner. For a start they’re cheaper. But they are also buzzes for life. There won’t always be someone there dishing out the sweets for doing something well or for learning. Training students to be pleased with themselves is the bigger reward.

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Which of these have an authentic buzz?

This is why learning must be about them as an individual. Competition is one thing but if you’re always at the ‘bottom’ or the ‘top’ there is no competition; it’s boring or even worse demotivating. A student (and their teacher) that can follow their own personal trajectory will feel more accomplished and thus more motivated. The competition is between you and yourself.

How I use testing with my classes supports learning but it also create the sense of ‘it’s me against me’. The year I didn’t use grades was great because the buzz didn’t come from a grade or mark but from doing better than last time. Students can see and feel their learning  through what they’ve improved on. They feel the buzz.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that learning should only be about what is ‘relevant’ and applicable to students’ everyday lives. If you genuinely think school is just about preparing for skills needed in life, get your lesson plans ready for changing light bulbs and cleaning toilets. This is not what creates intrinsic motivation. We know it’s not as if you’ve ever taught year 10/11s about writing a CV they won’t all suddenly do it really well because it ‘matters’. Kids aren’t just interested in what they ‘need’ and learning shouldn’t only be about this. (I taught my year 9s about the Fall & Original sin this week-see picture at top. Motivation for learning wasn’t just about the willies and boobs.)

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There’s limited motivation in teaching how to change a light bulb.

Too many people think that their own syllabus is ‘bad’ because kids don’t need to know this stuff and won’t use it when they’re older. Intrinsic learning goes beyond this.
I love teaching. I love teaching my subject. Most of it is deeply fascinating. I share this with them. They enjoy it, they learn. Imagine being taught by someone who isn’t excited by the subject who thinks you don’t really need to know it and thinks it’s dry and boring. Three words; self, fulfilling, prophecy.

How do I know this all works? The quietest kids’ mum comes to parents’ evening. She tells me her daughter loves RS and she talks about it at home. That’s intrinsic. You can’t talk about a sweet for very long. 

Overall I think this has implications for whole school reward systems. I have spent hours in leadership meetings discussing systems and their potential costs/benefits. However I wonder, if we were to work on what is happening in classrooms (yet again I’ve already blogged on this), we could save schools ££ each year by ditching whole school rewards and focussing on intrinsic motivation and a true love of learning.

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