Internal drive.

run train

What makes us go?

Pernille Ripp from Blogging Through the Fourth Dimension provides some challenging and mindful questions about rewards. I am a skeptic of Alfie Kohn, but after what I’ve seen the past two years with PBIS am experiencing my own ‘growth mindset,’ too.

PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports), according to the mission statement on their website: 

PBIS is a framework or approach for assisting school personnel in adopting and organizing evidence-based behavioral interventions into an integrated continuum that enhances academic and social behavior outcomes for all students. 
PBIS IS NOT a packaged curriculum, scripted intervention, or manualized strategy. 
PBIS IS a prevention-oriented way for school personnel to (a) organize evidence-based practices, (b) improve their implementation of those practices, and (c) maximize academic and social behavior outcomes for students.
PBIS supports the success of ALLstudents.

Here are the four questions asked, and my thoughts:

1.  Will the rewards only go to certain kids?

Currently our system throughout the school means rewards go to certain kids by design.

I am considering doing more class/period competitions, not in terms of grade or score displays (a thousand times NO), but in terms of what students from other classes say/contribute. As it stands, I use class discussions to capture contributions from all classes on the Smartnotebook, but a means to share those contributions in a visual way might be amazing. The expectation is everyone contributes. More exit tickets with thinking. I used e-learning to host forums every week; perhaps I’ll create a cross-class workshop next year. The message in my room stands on valuing contributions: not loudest voices, one reason forums and space to think/write is highly valued in my room.

2.  Have you seen long-term changes as a result of giving extrinsic rewards?

The short answer: no.

The longer answer: yes, but not the kinds of changes I’ve wanted to see.

I miss the longer forms, what we used to call “Way to Go” slips, because when I filled one of those out it carried more weight and thought than our current ‘carnival’ ‘Chuck E. Cheese’s’ token economy currently in place. The staff has worked so hard to provide a prize table in the cafeteria, and spent their own money for items. Having spent thousands of dollars myself on books, pencils, snacks, clothing, toiletries, and yes, prizes, this isn’t sustainable. Again, I am not advocating for the abolishment of a prize table, but I wish it was dissociated with the learning environment. When I go to Chuck E. Cheese’s I’m not there for the literature or algorithms. (Well, I don’t need to go at all anymore: that phase is over for me!) Perhaps the students clubs and groups could work at earning those prizes, or some other extra-curricular culture? I’m not sure what the answer is.

And this is squarely my fault: I am not good at this. I never have been. When it comes to keeping track of tickets and tokens, it is not in my nature or style. I have been expected to change my own teaching style, and feel hypocritical and guilty when my name or number isn’t counted among the thousands of tickets when admin checks how many teachers gave away tickets.

Yes, they collect the data on teachers for our compliance. Supposedly this isn’t the case anymore, but the spirit of the tickets is tainted for me.

I have stacks of books, stories, student work to hang up, and adding tickets to the mix was my personal tipping point. I don’t want to burn out. One factor is when others’ agendas and projects  suck the oxygen out of me.

I’ve asked if the tickets can be used to choose kids to participate in assemblies, go first in line at lunch (I believe this has happened, but not sure), and they’ve given the kids with slips an extra treat at lunch. I would be interested to know how many tickets are given because the student worked really hard on a project versus picked up trash in the classroom. I actually wouldn’t object if tickets were given out for cleaning up and helping out, but the tickets should be clearly associated with classroom culture and safety, and NOT learning. Some other academic showcase should be reserved for that: hallway displays, blogs. forums. One of the highlights of my year was when a student from another team complimented me on hanging up student work in the hallways–she wanted to be part of it, too.

Perhaps my own failure to hand out tickets is because I don’t do this for my own sons: there is a standard ‘chore list’ with the understanding that for the good of the family they’ll help. And they have. Not once have I received back-talk or non-compliance for asking a son to take out the trash, and most times I don’t even have to remind them. I have been honest, kind of that ‘if momma ain’t happy, no one is’ thing – let’s all do what we can so we can get to the ‘fun’ stuff: watching a movie, reading, stargazing, etc.

3.  Will the rewards increase or devalue the learning?

The rewards in place clearly devalue learning. The rise of ‘grade grubbing,’ questions such as, “How many points is this worth?” and “What will I get?” is as frequent as students asking for pencils or using proxy servers to download games and music. I am considering creating a poster/chart of the banned phrases in my room, such as “How long does it have to be?” and “How many points is it worth?” It’s gotten out of hand. No longer does any learning have value to most students because of the increase in extrinsic motivation. They (students) are connecting compliance with engagement, and are going to be in sad shape when they can’t think of anything to engage their minds with on their own, or haven’t meditated on metacognitive thinking.

“If little else, the brain is an educational toy.”

― Tom RobbinsEven Cowgirls Get the Blues

Now, perhaps the learning is happening invisibly. But in terms of the current system of rewards, it’s been a huge distraction. Any small favor, any helpful contribution is often followed by, “Can I have a Pride Slip?”

I am not against extrinsic motivation. The other morning someone said a kind word to me, and like drought-ridden Texas, when I was showered with a modicum of kindness I started crying. (Yes, the climate at my school as been really negative.) We all need to have a kind word or acknowledgment.

4.  Will students actually care?

The prize is a thing, not value. Giving a blank journal to a girl who loves to write, or a book to a boy who loves to read snarky, sarcastic writers has value. I offer my time and counsel to those even after they leave my classroom. The personal gestures hold weight, the chotskies or novelty items are ephemeral. Students greedily grab up tokens in the moment, and then when they don’t ‘have enough’ are discouraged. Students have stolen tickets, bartered, traded, etc. in order to get the big prizes at the prize table (soccer balls, etc.). Like hustling for cigarettes and contraband in prison, much of the ‘ticket culture’ has lead to some unsavory behaviors.

harry bored

And I wonder if the token economy decreases curiosity, which increases boredom, which then may increase process addictive behaviors (those twitchy, compulsive behaviors: checking our phones, etc.


Last year, when our school implemented PBIS, the students were hoarding the ‘pride slips.’ The teachers’ names were printed on them, and then because of an outcry, the tickets then had anonymous numbers printed on them correlating to teachers, so administration could collect data on how many teachers were in compliance with the program. No one addressed the equity issue, or the hoarding at that time. No one provided any debate or counter-discussion to the token economy implemented by the PBIS committee. (To be fair, the committee members are some of the hardest working, responsive colleagues and professionals I know: they offered the times and dates of their meetings. And perhaps I am misremembering the staff meetings: little motion for debate or questioning was truly encouraged at staff meetings in the past. I am hoping that changes.) I did pop my head into one meeting, and offered my insight as to why hoarding occurred. Most of our students are raised by twitchy games: coins, blinking jewels, cartoon noises when achieved a temporal goal. Micro-transactions (small purchases to get to the next level of a game) induce process addictive behaviors. Oh wow: did I just suggest that a prize ticket at school may lead to a gambling addiction? That’s hyperbolic, and I apologize. I’ll try to focus more (after this level!)


Here’s where I am: 

Students want to be seen. The ones who aren’t rewarded merely for turning in an assignment, or rewarded because “Johnny didn’t dance on the tables today” are the ones who respectfully, and courageously, just want my time and insight, as I theirs. When I ask them if I may share their story or poem with the staff, when we invite others to hear their performances, when we help them carry their legacy and give them the academic portfolio to honor their work, those students not only thrive, learn, and grow, but carry that enduring love of learning with them.

So, what were my results by not handing out little blue tickets? Actually, pretty great. Yesterday I went to the high school with my 8th grade students for ‘move up day.’ One of my sweet students was in my group, and she remarked at how many high school students came up and hugged me, worked to catch my attention, and in general were happy to see me, as I them. That motivates me as I pack up a tough year. And I don’t need a ticket to prove it.