Peterborough pupil Alex Gordon has been rewarded with Amazon vouchers by Cambridgeshire Country Council after completing over 2300 consecutive days without absence; the entirety of his school career. It is a wonderful achievement and he should be commended for this. The financial gesture from the Local Authority has prompted some, however, to question if paying students to turn up should be back on the agenda!
I spoke to BBC Radio’s Paul Stainton this morning on “The Bigger Breakfast” and this is what I had to say.
To reward or not to reward?
Studies by those like Roland Fryers (2010) remind us that rewards only work if you target the incentive in the right way. His research revealed that short-term goal orientated approaches might work in that rewarding the inputs to education yielded great impacts than focusing on the long-term outputs. Put another way, giving students money to get 10 As is unlikely to work if the student doesn’t understand the steps needed to achieve that goal.
Yet, psychological ‘over justification theory’ calls into question rewards of any type. It proposes that when one ascribes a external incentive for something like “attending school” there is a very real danger that attendance (in and of itself) becomes valued merely for that reward. Psychologist Edward Deci, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Rochester University in the US, studied the relationship between a conditioned financial reward and the completion of a specific task. Deci noted that withdrawal of the extrinsic reward (in this instance money) led to the disinclination of the student to continue with a simple puzzle. The students who had not been paid (and relied on their own intrinsic motivation) continued to show an attentiveness in the puzzles.
Weiner, like Deci, suggests the power (both positive and negative) of attributional behaviours; if an individual attributes their behaviour to an extrinsic reward so that individual becomes less inclined to participate in that very activity without reward being offered.
The Real Problem…
Whilst some studies reveal short-term gains of extrinsic reward, they tend to have limited impact on two cohorts of students: first those who are unwell. Parents on sites like Mumsnet complain vociferously that prizes for attendance, ‘basically [reward] immune systems’! The second constituent is the hardcore truant: rewarding attendance neither demonstrates great gains in attendance nor deals with the issue of mental absenteeism; that is getting them to ‘attend’ whilst they are attending.