Considering the carrot or the stick: which incentives are you giving?

In school we are frequently faced with challenges in the form of reluctant or disruptive learners. Whilst there are always situations in which there is no alternative but to opt for the ‘stick’ rather than the ‘carrot’ approach, I am a firm believer in the philosophy that punishment is only used as a final resort. In my experience, punishments often cause great resent-met and only succeed in polarising the opposing camps even further: the pupil becomes even more uncooperative and the teacher has to enforce increasingly severe sanctions until the relationship between them is unsalvageable. Take a moment to consider which incentives for learning you are using.

Firstly, it’s worth asking yourself a question. What is the payoff from the pupils’ perspective for engaging in the content of your lesson? I once read in a psychology book that children learn best when they have need for something. In planning a lesson, consider whether within your learning objectives if you have created ‘a need’ for the student. That ‘need’ in itself can then become an incentive.

As a Modern Language Teacher it was often hard for bottom set Year 9 to perceive a need to learn French on a Friday afternoon. In my planning, I would artificially create that ‘need’ for them by devising numerous interactive games, which could only be played if certain pieces of language were learned by the end of the lesson. For example, the class would be divided into teams. I might then call out a colour in French and the first team to have all their members touching something of that colour would win a point. It meant enduring a very noisy ten minutes at the end of the lesson, but the pupils enjoyed it and were motivated to learn the planned pieces of vocabulary. This idea, of course, can be adapted to other subjects in a much more sedate way, for example, Maths teachers may be able to provide an activity where groups have to design and construct the highest Lego tower possible, using the least number of bricks in the shortest possible time, which requires certain calculations to be learned.

“If the student can see the value in a lesson, he or she will be more motivated and less likely to create conflict.”

Secondly, consider the style in which you deliver your teaching. On a subconscious level, your tone of voice and body language emit very powerful messages in terms of motivating your students. Many teachers have now actively adopted a policy of non-verbal praise in the form of giving a thumbs-up sign, or simply consciously smiling at a pupil they wish to reward.This type of non-verbal encouragement, coupled with genuine verbal praise can go a long way towards enhancing self-esteem, something which is often sadly lacking in the low achiever. It is frequently the most disruptive pupils who rarely receive any praise due to their poor behaviour and they are caught in a loop of disruption and admonition. In these situations it may be a case initially of praising such a pupil for what they are not doing, rather than for anything they are achieving. For example, just saying a ‘well done for managing not to shout out’ at the end of the lesson may encourage a child to behave better next time too.

Thirdly, consider some creativity around the general reward scheme used within your school (e.g. merit certificates, stickers or earning ‘Golden Time’). The drawback of some of these systems is that it is usually the more able and well behaved who man-age to win such rewards. The introduction of your own class incentives gives you greater flexibility to encourage pupils of all abilities. Here are two ideas:

1. Award raffle tickets on completion of tasks or in recognition of the best piece of work (e.g. the quietest table or the most interesting group presentation). The pupils need to store their tickets safely and once a week, or month, the raffle is called and the first three numbers drawn win a prize, which can range from a chocolate bar to a CD token, depending on your generosity and the age group of the pupils. Obviously the more raffle tick-et’s a pupil has, the more chance he or she has of winning, thus creating an incentive to earn as many as possible.

2. Give each pupil a reward sheet to keep. When I taught languages this took the form of a map of France or Spain divided into regions. Each time I wanted to reward a student, I would sign my initials in one of the regions of the map, which they could then colour in. Once the map was completely filled, a prize would be earned. In this way I could reward even the weakest of pupils. Even the older, Key Stage 4 pupils would fuss to get a region of their maps filled in! I recently adapted the idea for use with a permanently excluded primary school boy whom I knew loved animals. I simply drew a picture of a dog and divided it into numbered sections, which could be coloured in each time he succeeded in staying in his chair for more than five min-ute’s. Initially it provided a very effective incentive for the improvement of his behaviour and later for engaging him in work. This idea is easily adapted e.g. maps for Geography, geometric shapes for Maths or literary figures for English.

Rewards need to given for genuine effort or achievements, however small. There can be a fine line between an incentive and a bribe. If the reward comes too easily, it will lose impact and you will be seen as ‘a soft touch.’ It can some-times be difficult for disruptive pupils to receive praise in front of their peers since it can undermine their ‘macho’ image, so judge for yourself the best setting for giving out praise or rewards.

Finally, I leave you with this challenge. Think about your most problematic pupils and honestly assess the types of interactions you have with them. Is it possible to break out of any negative patterns of communication that have been established? Is there anything new you can try that might begin to motivate them?

Nicola Fahey began her career as Head of Spanish in an outer London comprehensive. She then spent 8 years as a Management Development Trainer and Change Consultant with BT. Nicola has returned to teaching and is currently employed at a pupil referral unit where she deals specifically with pupils who have severe behavioural, psychological or physical difficulties.

This article first appeared in Teaching Expertise, April 2004.