Before reading this column, you might want to read or review Dr. Jones's previous columns Positive Discipline Part 1: The School Discipline Code and Positive Discipline Part 2: Instruction Meets Discipline.
INCENTIVES AND MOTIVATIONIn our last segment, we examined how Say, See, Do Teaching combines precision teaching with immediate feedback in a group setting. By correcting student performance while it is being done, we open the door to the systematic management of motivation in the classroom.
Motivation is managed through the use of incentives. Incentives answer the question, "Why should I?" By managing incentives, we can increase the motivation of students to work hard while working conscientiously.
But incentives must be used correctly, or they can create more problems than they solve. They must be used in conjunction with checking work as it is being done and providing immediate feedback. Otherwise, incentives drive students to work fast and sloppy.
It is, therefore, time for us to learn more about the technology of incentive management. To use incentives effectively, you must have fun. The principle that ties incentives and motivation together is, "No joy, no work."
Most incentive systems in life are informal. The universal incentive in child rearing and family life is love. Love is both a bond and a motivator. Children who love their parents will often do things to please their parents.
One of the most important jobs of parents is to spend a lot of time giving affection to their children -- to cuddle and play, to roughhouse and horsy ride, to snuggle and read stories. These good times serve many purposes -- bonding, brain development, and emotional growth to name a few. One purpose, however, is to establish the parents as powerful reinforcers in their children's lives. Most of the cooperation that parents eventually get from their children will be based on all of the emotional "money in the bank" that has been stored up over the years. For example, if you ask your twelve-year-old to carry the groceries in from the car, and he or she says, "Okay," realize that your child has just given you a gift. But that gift is based on solid experience. You have just received a small dividend check from all the love and good times you've put into the bank over the years.
FORMAL INCENTIVE SYSTEMS
Some incentive systems in life are formal. They represent an agreed upon exchange of goods and services. Your paycheck is such an incentive.
But around the house, most of the formal incentive systems that we use as parents are embedded in routines to get the kids to do things that need to be done. The one I remember most clearly from my childhood was "the bedtime routine." My mother would say, "All right kids, it is 8:30 -- time to get ready for bed. Time to wash your face, brush your teeth, and get your pajamas on. As soon as you are in bed, it will be story time. But, lights out at 9:00."
As you can see, the terms of the arrangement were no mystery. The faster we moved, the more time we had for snuggles and stories. Formal incentives and informal incentives work together. No matter what the formal incentive, we always try harder for someone we love.
Due to the overuse of formal incentives in classrooms during the past several decades, educators have become understandably concerned about "bribery." We have become wary of the overuse of points, tokens, treats, and meaningless rewards. Many teachers have overgeneralized, however, to the point where they consider all incentives to be bribes. In order to avoid throwing the baby out with the bath water, we need to examine the appropriate and inappropriate use of formal incentives. Within this context, it is helpful to categorize formal incentives as either proactive or reactive.
A proactive incentive system is an exchange that is established in advance. These exchanges are typically innocuous, every-day events. Effective parents and teachers have always been instinctive incentive managers. They have a knack for pairing treats with chores in order to get work done. Here are some time-honored examples:
A reactive incentive system, on the other hand, is an exchange that is established in the heat of the moment. Imagine a situation in which your child will not cooperate with you. From his or her perspective, there is no good reason to do so. In frustration, you react to the dilemma by offering the child a reward if he or she will do as you want. This reactive incentive is a bribe. Take, for example, the following argument:
Mother: "Billy, I want you to clean your room."
Billy: "I don't want to."
Mother: "Now, I want that room cleaned. It is a mess!"
Billy: "I want to go outside and play!"
Mother: "Not until you get this room cleaned!"
Billy: "I'm not doing it!"
Mother: "Oh, yes you are!"
Billy: "You can't make me!"
Mother: "Listen, I'll give you fifty cents when this room is clean, and then you can go outside and play."
Unfortunately, when you use incentives incorrectly, they blow up in your face and give you the opposite of what you want. In this example the mother has just reinforced Billy for noncooperation, rather than for cooperation. By digging in his heels and saying "No," Billy has been rewarded with fifty cents. If he had simply cleaned his room without an argument, he wouldn't have gotten a penny. What do you suppose will be going through Billy's mind the next time his mother asks him to do some chore around the house?
To put it simply, bribery is the definition of malpractice in incentive management. Nobody who is well trained in the technology of incentive management would even consider offering an incentive in that fashion.
INFORMAL AND FORMAL CLASSROOM INCENTIVES
In the classroom teachers need both informal and formal incentives to motivate students. Students naturally will work harder for teachers they like. But, formal incentives will play a more prominent role in the classroom than they do in family life.
For one thing, the students don't know you, much less love you, on the first day of school. And, for another thing, some students resent you just because you are an adult authority figure. For those reasons, any teacher will need to develop technical proficiency in the design and implementation of formal incentive systems.
Simple classroom incentive systems are straightforward applications of Grandma's Rule, which says: You have to finish your dinner before you get your dessert.
A simple incentive system is the juxtaposition of two activities:
The first activity is the task. The second activity is the preferred activity. The heart of an incentive system is the preferred activity. It answers the question, "Why should I?" It gives the student something to work for and look forward to in the not-too-distant future.
SPONGE PREFERRED ACTIVITIES
A sponge preferred activity is simply a preferred activity that soaks up the time remaining before the bell rings. You work hard to finish the assignment so you can have as much preferred activity time as possible.
While preferred activities must be desirable for the students, they must be cheap for the teacher. They must be organized and ready to go in advance. The teacher cannot stop what he or she is doing during Guided Practice in order to get each student started on a separate preferred activity.
My sixth grade teacher, Miss Bakey, had a system. She had us all bring a shoebox from home to serve as our "project box." We put our names on the boxes and filled them with the materials needed for an art or science project. All the project boxes were lined up on a shelf where we could get to them easily when we finished our assignments.
The range of preferred activities available to a teacher in the classroom is quite broad and varied. Literally anything the students eagerly look forward to doing can serve as a preferred activity. Many would come under the heading of "enrichment activities." The following suggestions only scratch the surface.
Most of my teachers were really into "projects." For example, all my elementary classrooms had an easel in the back with three jars of tempera paint in the primary colors and a few well-worn brushes. Students who finished early worked on murals on the chalkboard depicting the theme of our social studies unit or the coming holiday.
In addition to the tempera paint murals, I can remember innumerable art projects accompanying social studies and science units. We sketched and painted everything from wild animals to cell structure, from maps with rivers and mountains to villages of thatched huts. We drew igloos and log cabins.
We would decorate the room. Every upcoming holiday or back-to-school night provided the teacher with preferred activities. We would decorate walls and bulletin boards. To this day, I cannot understand why a teacher would spend valuable lesson-planning time putting up bulletin boards when the net result is to preempt a wonderful preferred activity.
My high school French teacher was particularly clever. She assigned each of her five huge casement windows to a different class period. Each class had the job of transforming its blank window into a beautiful stained-glass window. Our teacher surrounded us with examples from the cathedrals of France, and she taught us how the artisans built the windows. Our materials were colored cellophane and electrician's tape. We went through all the stages of construction, from drawing the life-size cartoons to "leading" the "glass." We rushed to complete our daily assignments so that we could get to work on our windows.
When the teacher does whole-group instruction, the class can have a whole group preferred activity. Our foreign language classes were particularly well suited for doing that because so many drills and dictations were group activities.
When we completed our stained-glass windows in French class, we moved right along to French Christmas carols and folk songs. I can still sing some of them.
Listening centers make great preferred activities. Some teachers use listening centers to teach music appreciation. Other teachers put on background music to make whole-group preferred activities even more enjoyable. Sometimes small groups of students rush to complete their assignments in order to work up a routine for a student talent show.
One question I never was asked in school was, "What do you want to know?" Children are curious by their very nature. That truism applies even to students who might not be very curious about the subjects contained in our normal curriculum. Having students describe their special interests will help you identify relevant learning projects. It might be dwarf stars or race cars, but whatever the topic, it can become a research project.
Preferred activities, therefore, provide the teacher with an avenue for teaching research skills on a topic the student is motivated to explore. The student also might prepare a presentation to the class as part of the project, complete with visual aids.
Interest Centers and Computer Centers
Interest centers are ready-made preferred activities. In addition, access to computers or special equipment of any kind can be a powerful motivator.
Almost anything in the curriculum can be taught in the form of a game. Books of games have been published for learning everything from history to the multiplication of fractions. Books of learning puzzles and mind benders also can be found. Because such books have a short shelf life, instead of listing them here, we update our Web site regularly with publishers of available books on games and activities. There are also lists of Web sites containing directions for specific projects.
Reading and Writing for Pleasure
Having students read their library books is a time-honored preferred activity. Journal writing is another traditional favorite. Some teachers have students work on a class newspaper. Others have contests for writing poetry or song lyrics.
Helping the Teacher
Students who finish their work early are natural candidates for peer tutoring. Training the class to use Praise, Prompt, and Leave while helping one another gives students a valuable teaching skill in the process. Some students like to help the teacher with work check, writing test questions, developing materials for interest centers, or even helping the teacher search for good preferred activity games and puzzles. You often can find a bright student with artistic ability who will make beautiful step-wise Visual Instructional Plans for you before you teach the next lesson.
Using preferred activity time to build up extra credit is particularly appealing to some students. Memorizing poetry, doing more advanced assignments, or preparing a special class presentation are examples. Some students want to do their homework during preferred activity time. Those are often the high achievers, whose after school hours are taken up with extra-curricular activities.
SCHEDULING PREFERRED ACTIVITIESLesson-by-Lesson
A work contract is simply a preferred activity that follows the completion of a series of tasks. Teachers in self-contained classrooms might leave the end of the day open for preferred activity time after all the day's assignments have been completed. Teachers in a departmentalized setting might have preferred activity time on Friday.
One clever way of organizing a work contract is called "Freaky Friday." Friday, of course, is the day on which all the week's assignments must be completed. Explain the rules of Freaky Friday to the class as follows:
"Class, tomorrow we are going to have Freaky Friday. Let me remind you how it works. Before you can start Freaky Friday, all your assignments for the week must be completed and turned in. Only then can you participate. For Freaky Friday, I will put seven assignments on the board. You may choose any four of them and omit any three. When you have completed your four assignments to my satisfaction and handed them in, you may work on your project for the rest of the day."
It's hard for adults to appreciate how sweet it is for young people to have control over their own destiny. One teacher who had implemented Freaky Friday had a parent storm into her classroom after school and say, "I understand from my son that students get to do whatever they want all day Friday. Is that true? The children only work four days of the week?"
The parent was slightly misinformed, of course. The child simply said that, "We get to do whatever we want on Fridays." In the excitement over getting to exercise freedom of choice, the student failed to clarify that "anything we want" included a full day's worth of academic work. But, how sweet it is to choose.
A SENSE OF FUN
You cannot have preferred activity time without having fun. Some teachers just naturally have a sense of fun. They bring it with them into the classroom and find ways of making it happen.
Yet, we all would like to have more control over the level of student motivation in the classroom. Understanding and using incentives is, therefore, a necessary part of our professional repertoire. Having fun with learning amounts to enlightened self-interest.But implementing preferred activity time also must be affordable for the teacher. Work check must be cheap, organization must be simple, and a repertoire of preferred activities must be readily at hand.
Using preferred activities becomes much easier when faculty members work together to gather preferred activity ideas and materials in a central "PAT Bank." Discovering more and more ways of making learning fun is a hallmark of our professional growth as teachers.