Rewards

They became immediately upset.  On a speaking tour some years ago, the teachers sitting in front of me were visibly shaken when I declared, “If you give out prizes for completed school work, children are taught to work for the prize, not the gift of learning.”  Some educators believe incentives are external and physical.  For them, motivation comes from the outside, in.  Psychological theories from Pavlov and Skinner have made children equivalent to animals: dogs salivating at the sound of a bell, mice finding cheese in a maze.  Schools cheering physical behaviors create cultural citizens obsessed with “the bottom line.”  Naturalistic, materialistic viewpoints produce people who believe only what they see.

But some might wonder shouldn’t we operate in this world based on what works?  A recent TIME magazine front cover asked a similar question, “Should kids be bribed to do well in school?”[1] It seems students given financial pay performed better in testing than those who were not given money.  One wonders, however, if the researchers consulted other sources of study.  Daniel H. Pink’s book Drive: The Surprising Truth About what Motives Us corrects the mistaken behavior model with scores of studies showing financial pay is a poor motivator.  Pink concludes that a rewards based culture gives us more of what we don’t want: unethical behavior, addiction, loss of long-term thinking, and, surprisingly, a loss of performance.

So-called “performance reviews” create a “carrot and stick” environment.  “If you do this for me, then I’ll do this for you” is the operating procedure.  And the rewards mentality creates yet another problem: bribery.  Everyone wants to be friends with those who have gifts to give.  But getting paid for a grade may prompt another kind of bribery later in life that everyone hates in business and politics: phrases like “undo influence,” “pay offs,” and “one hand washes the other” come to mind.  Pay offs for grades now, will encourage pay offs for ethics later.  If children are taught to reach for the carrot at the end of the stick, they may only get stuck by the stick.

Instead of carrots and sticks, ancient Jewish wisdom teaches a different lesson.  3000 years ago Solomon made an audacious claim—what motivates people comes from inside, out.  The wisest man ever to live declared if one sows righteousness one will reap a sure reward.  Respect, wisdom, joy, love, and freedom Solomon says are intangible yet real effects of a life well lived.[2] Internal change is always the best change.  Extrinsic rules of conformity only train people to gain what is immediate.  Rewards for good behavior in the classroom only teach children how to obtain rewards—little else.  People are formed from the inside, out.  The joy of learning is an educator’s best incentive.  For Moody Radio, this is Dr. Mark Eckel, personally seeking truth wherever it’s found.

This commentary was heard live at www.moodyradiochicago.fm at 6:08 a.m. 28 June 2010.  The transcript can be accessed at www.mornings.fm under “past programs.” Dr. Mark Eckel, Professor of Old Testament, Crossroads Bible College


[1] Amanda Ripley. “Pay for Grades,” TIME 8 April 2010.

[2] Proverbs 11:18; favor from other people 3:3-4; 11:16; 22:1; wisdom (8:35; 9:12); joy (10:28; 29:6); love (14:22); freedom (11:21); intangible (10:6, 24; 13:21, 25; 29:18).

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