Desert Part 1: RewardsNovember 22, 2008
Returning to my earlier discussion of ethics, desert is another ethical concept that has been repeatedly neglected, or used only selectively, in education in recent years. “Desert” is the extent to which an action is worth rewarding or punishing. These days there are real problems with the very suggestion that children might deserve to be treated differently depending on their behaviour, or effort. Most of the time, the objection to desert takes the form of an objection to punishment, however, in its most extreme form rewards are also challenged, for instance:
It is conventional for schools to demand respect from the children. But does the school and the behaviour of adults, show respect for the children? There are so many ways of showing disrespect, and some of them are ways I thought had disappeared in the 1970s. It says: How many stars have you got this term? And here are the children’s names, in alphabetical order:
Amy (here are 12 stamps, each saying ‘well done’)
Do I need to continue? From the publication of this data on the classroom wall, Amy, Amrit, Chloe, Daisy and Freddie are expected to respect their teacher?
According to this account, even public rewards for those who deserve it are simply an attack on those who don’t. “Respect” has been redefined to mean its opposite, a contempt for personal merit, rather than esteem for it.
Sometimes “rewards” are still allowed, but are made meaningless by being unrelated to merit. One disturbing fashion at the moment is to reward students who don’t misbehave, giving the clear message that poor behaviour is normal and mere compliance with the rules and expectations of the classroom is of particular merit. Cowley (2001), having warned that rewards should, in theory, be earned, nevertheless, gives the following advice:
To keep a difficult class focused in the computer room it might be an idea to offer them a reward (for instance the chance to use the internet) when they have completed the work set to your satisfaction. Although this is not strictly ‘allowed’ it can be very effective and it will also win you a reputation as someone who is open to negotiation
As ever those wanting to undermine our understanding of morality can turn to psychology for a morality-free interpretation of basic moral concepts. Behaviourists (now often called Behaviour Analysists) have used the term “reward” to refer to any incentive given to encourage a particular behaviour. This is to lose the entire point of the concept of reward; rewards are not simply inducements to comply, but are positively deserved. Wilson (1971) explains what a “reward” that isn’t deserved actually amounts to:
…to give pleasure to someone, if he had no notion that he deserved such a thing, will seem to him to like flattery, currying favour or offering a bribe, not like a ‘reward’… even when he feels there is an acceptable reason for the pleasure in terms of custom or precedent (as on his birthday, for example), he will construe it not as a ‘reward’ but as a gift. Only when deliberate pleasure-giving is for moral desert, is it properly speaking a ‘reward’. Other sorts of deliberate pleasure-giving come under categories such as ‘gift’ or ‘prize’, or on occasion ‘bribe’ or ‘inducement’, and so on.
This is where the problem lies. Nobody can develop the idea that an activity is worthwhile through a bribe. Nobody can realise that good behaviour is worthwhile for its own sake if it is bought. There is nothing wrong with rewards, where they recognise merit, but everything wrong with them when they are part of a transaction or a negotiation.
And finally, a wider point can be made about cultures where people feel they should be rewarded or respected for simply compliance with minimal social expectations. In his controversial routine, “Niggas Versus Black People” the comedian Chris Rock, describes the value system of the criminal underclass within the black community in the United States (controversially described as “niggas”):
You know the worst thing about niggas? Niggas always want some credit for some shit they supposed to do. For some shit they just supposed to do: A nigga will brag about some shit a normal man just does. A nigga will say some shit like, “I take care of my kids.” You’re supposed to, you dumb motherfucker. What are you talking about? What are you bragging about? What kind of ignorant shit is that? “I ain’t never been to jail.” What do you want, a cookie? You’re not supposed to go to jail, you low-expectation-having motherfucker.
It doesn’t take long in a British classroom to find a student who wants to be rewarded for not interrupting or for doing some work, or something else they are “just supposed to do”. Instead of seeking to achieve, students think their teachers should be grateful if they merely comply. I’ve frequently encountered students attempt to enter negotiation about rewards for accomplishments such as “I didn’t get a detention this lesson”. One student proudly told me they hadn’t been excluded at all since year 8.
What do you want, a cookie?
Cowley, Sue, Getting The Buggers to Behave, Continuum, 2001
Sedgewick, Fred, How to Teach with a Hangover: A Practical Guide to Overcoming Classroom Crises, Continuum, 2005
Wilson, P.S. Interest and Discipline In Education, Routledge And Kegan Paul, 1971