What marks do I need to score this?In a recent article in the Vancouver Province, it described an initiative started by a community to pay their children for getting good grades.  After reading this, my heart began to race and I was floored.  How could an entire community believe that extrinsically motivating (bribing) kids into getting good grades was going to help with their learning?

Many of us have read from Alfie Kohn and Daniel Pink about the harm of using extrinsic rewards for learning and how this can actually inhibit students from participating in higher level thinking, risk-taking, and deeper learning.  Kohn has stated, “the more you reward someone for doing something, the less interest that person will tend to have in whatever he or she was rewarded to do.”

So why is it acceptable to pay kids or reward kids for learning?  These tactics may work very short term but what about the harm that it does in the long term?  What happens if the reward is removed?  Will the student still see value in learning?  What is the going rate for an A; is there inflation?

I was so fired up that I went in the staff room and showed some staff the article.  A few staff members were appalled, some didn’t really have much of an opinion and one teacher said, “I think it is a good idea”.  WHAT?!?!  I asked her to continue and fill me in on how this is a good idea; she continued, “well, the system is not working for these kids, the community is probably frustrated that the system is not changing, so they are trying something.”  I gave every reason why this was a bad idea (places focus on grades rather than learning, students become more worried about the reward than the process, etc) and we agreed to disagree.

Later in the day, I started to reflect on the words of this teacher.  I started to begin to see what she was saying.  The system is not working for many kids; they are not motivated by grades and their learning is not being personalized in a way that is meaningful and relevant.  So if one extrinsic motivator (grades) is not working, and their intrinsic motivational needs (Autonomy, Master, Purpose – from Daniel Pink) are not being met, the community felt they had no choice but to increase the extrinsic motivator by adding cash.

Boom.  Although I 100% disagree with using money as a carrot/bribe for achievement (please do not do this), the real problem is a system that is failing far too many students.  The system is not relevant to many kids.  (It is far worse when people have the ability to change the system and choose to resort to paying kids for grades like the Chicago Public Schools “Green For Grades” Program).

In BC, there is plenty of talk these days around “personalized learning”.  In order for us to make school more “personalized” and relevant to students we need to change the focus on achievement and grades to more of a focus on the process of learning.  The curriculum needs to be altered (made smaller) so teachers have the time and flexibility to bring in topics and learning activities that are of interest to students.  Students also need a much bigger voice in what and how they learn.  Schools should be a place where students can come and have the opportunity to learn something in which they have an interest, not be forced to learn something in which they have no interest.

I have taught grade 1 through grade 12 and as they grow older, many students seem to lose their sense of curiosity and learning – a primary student has yet to ask me, “Is this for marks?`while this is a common question in most high school classes.

So what happens to this inquisitive learning nature in children? Why do some feel the need to have to resort to bribing students into doing well at school?  As students move up through the system, the societal and educational focus shifts from learning to grades and from the child to the curriculum. Some of the teachers at our school have stated that they would love to just teach what is meaningful to their students but they are pressured from society and the Ministry of Education to define student learning in the form of a single letter or number. Too, they feel pressure to make sure they get through the mandated curriculum.

So what is worse: paying students to get good grades? defining learning with a single letter? forcing a student to fit into a system that may not be relevant to him/her?

Every student and educator WANTS to do well. We need to change the system so that they all CAN do well (Dr. Ross Greene).  If we create an education system in which educators and students have the flexibility to make learning truly personalized and meaningful to students, people will not have to resort to the behaviourist theory of using harmful bribes and extrinsic rewards such as grades and money.

Let’s work together as educators, parents, students, and community members to create this change so there is no reason to consider the price of grades.