What’s Enough

In the time since I first wrote about creating an successful incentive program, I’ve had a nagging question.

If I believe in intrinsic motivation, why do I have a chest full of prizes?

I find the book Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes absolutely brilliant. 

So why do I need to use charts and stickers and music money? I think I finally understand how to reconcile these two seemingly opposing views. 

Tiny, incremental bits of learning are hard to quantify.

Clementine listening to a fellow student at a Saturday Master Class.
Clementine listening to a fellow student at a Saturday Master Class.

Clementine is seven years old and loves music. She loves to sing the lyrics to the songs so much that she often forgets to learn the notes of the melody.

She’s only beginning to understand what practicing is. Like most children, she thinks that “doing something right” is the desired behavior and a mistake should be ignored and forgotten as quickly as possible. Acknowledging an error seems like a pretty bad idea to Clementine.

This is where some kind of currency comes in. I needed a way to show Clementine how to practice. A tool to measure and reinforce. It’s not that she is thinking about prizes, we both just need some help.

I whipped out something she’d never seen before — the Owl Incentive Chart. (I gave her the choice between Pirates and Owls. She chose Owls. I’d bought the Pirates specifically because I thought she’d like them. Go figure!)

At first, she thought that she could get a sticker each time she played something correctly. This is typical. The idea that there was a reward for making a mistake, catching it and fixing it was new to her. (Though I’d explained it before – it hadn’t stuck.)

I explained that each time she filled in four boxes she could put an owl sticker on the chart. At first I gave her seven owl stickers to take home. As she bought in more and more to the process, I kept giving her more stickers to take home. (“Wow – you’re catching onto this so fast I bet you’re going to run out of stickers!”)

We pretended that we were at home and did a practice session. She dutifully stopped when she made a mistake and repeated the measure correctly twice. Box checked. It didn’t take long to get her first owl sticker. And then her second.

After a few minutes of box checking and owl stickers she looked me right in the eye.

“Can I practice when I get home today?”

I played it cool.

“Yes, Clem, you can practice when you get home today. And you know what? You get double credit for practice done when you get home from your lesson because it’s the most important time to practice.”

Clem’s eyes lit up. I’ll bet all those stickers will be on the chart when she comes back next week. Mistakes will have been made and corrected. Learning will have happened. Will it be perfect? Unlikely. But we’ve started something. She is beginning to understand how to break a goal into a set of tasks.

So much of what we do as teachers is cerebral. Simply saying, “Do it again!” over and over is not a rich and meaningful experience for our students. (Try keeping a tally of the number of times you say “Do that again” in a day. You might be shocked.)

Half the time they don’t even know what they did wrong – how in the world can they be expected to stay interested?

Kids need to know when they’ve done enough. As teachers, we need to decide exactly what’s enough.