A Note from the Editor: This is an exciting time for our contributor, Steve Reifman. Steve has two new books coming out this month. Chase Against Time, the first installment in his Chase Manning Mystery Series for readers 8-12, comes out March 15th. Each book in the series features a single-day, real-time mystery thriller that occurs on an elementary school campus. Changing Kids’ Lives One Quote at a Time presents 121 inspirational sayings that parents and teachers can use to build character in children. Be sure to stop by his site,stevereifman.com, and check out these books from one of our own! Congratulations, Steve! We’re lucky to have you here on our team! – Laura Parker
Recently, I had one of those days that all teachers experience. Almost from the opening bell, things just seemed to be a bit off with my students. Everything seemed to be a struggle. Every time we went out for recess or lunch, kids were returning in tears, arguing, and even getting involved in physical altercations. Inside the class the high level of focus that I am fortunate enough to witness on a consistent basis simply wasn’t there. More students were off task than usual, many lessons and activities didn’t proceed according to plan, and gaining and maintaining my students’ attention was difficult. It is during these times when we, as teachers, have to dig deep, find our patience, and remember what it is that we are trying to promote in our classrooms. When things appear to be falling apart around us, we have to decide how we are going to keep everything together.
One choice is to take the traditional route to classroom management. I have long been frustrated with and critical of traditional classroom management approaches that employ behaviorist principles, rest on negative assumptions about human nature, and rely heavily, if not exclusively, on extrinsic motivation (i.e., rewards and punishments).
With this first choice we can use rewards and punishments to control student behavior and focus. On the surface this seems to be a perfectly acceptable choice because when expertly employed, rewards and punishments will cause students to exhibit the focus and behavior we need to get things done in the classroom. In addition, this choice seems fine because this type of management approach is typically all that we are ever taught in our teacher training programs, in our student teaching placements, and in our textbooks. I find fault with this approach, but I am certainly not criticizing any educator who employs it.
The problem with this choice is that the main thing extrinsic motivators do is produce temporary obedience and compliance. If our goal is to build problem-solving and decision-making capacity, nurture intrinsic motivation, and promote the development and internalization of lifelong habits, extrinsic motivation is the last thing we would employ because such an approach is not only ineffective in promoting the development of these desirable outcomes, but also it is destructive.
In many of my writings, I have cited Alfie Kohn, whose Punished by Rewards clearly lays out the case against using extrinsic motivators in a classroom setting, but for now I will simply mention that using extrinsic motivators comes with a high price tag. My Eight Essentials for Empowered Teaching and Learning, K-8 also goes into much greater depth about this topic.
The other choice we, as teachers, have is to take the completely opposite approach, eschew extrinsic motivators entirely, and, instead, select an approach that nurtures intrinsic motivation. This latter approach is far less common, most likely because it is much more difficult to use.