No More Carrots

Gold Stars, Grades, and Pizza Parties Sap the Love of Learning.


“Hey guys, would you give me a hand moving these desks?”                

“Sure, Mr. Perricone. What’s in it for us?”

“What do you mean?” I ask, somewhat dejected.

“You know, maybe some extra credit?”

I stare at them in disbelief. They sense my discomfort, and the issue is dropped as they scurry to help me with the desks.

As an educator and as a parent, I have grave concerns about the mindset of many of our young people—What will you give me? It’s a mindset I believe my own profession and many parents are largely responsible for because we use external rewards (pizza parties, candy, etc.) to motivate (bribe) our students and children to read, perform, and behave.

At least two dozen studies clearly suggest that these practices are counterproductive. In one typical study, children were introduced to an unfamiliar beverage called Kefir. Some were just asked to drink; others were praised lavishly for doing so; a third group was promised treats if the students drank enough. Those who received verbal or tangible rewards consumed more than the other children, as one might predict. But a week later, the praised and rewarded children found Kefir significantly less appealing than they did before, whereas those who were offered no rewards liked it just as much as they had earlier. If we substitute reading, or doing math, or acting generously for drinking Kefir, we begin to glimpse the destructive nature of extrinsic reward systems.

Do rewards motivate students? Absolutely. They motivate students to get rewards. They do not motivate children to learn.

Educator Alfie Kohn argues that when someone says, “Do this and you will get that,” it automatically devalues “this.” The recipient of the reward figures that if they have to be bribed, “this” must be something they wouldn’t want to do for its own sake. How can we send such a sad message about learning to our kids? Our message to children should be that the reward for reading a great book is a story that inspires or moves them, not coupons to Pizza Hut or M&M’s. Our children are not trained seals.

Certainly not everything worth learning in life is fun and exciting. I don’t remember being thrilled learning my times tables, but man, am I glad I did. But I believe every teacher, within their subject matter, should be able to answer their students’ question, “Of what value is this to my life?” with an answer more meaningful and profound than “It’s on the exam!”

I tell my students from the first day that I wish I did not have to give grades, but the system requires that I do. I tell them I see their grades as simply indicators of progress, like road signs on a trip, not ends in themselves.

I ask them: Why are you getting an education? (Typical response: to get a good job.) And why do you want a good job? (So I can make money.) And why do you want money? (So I can live.) And what do you live for? (Silence.) And so begins our discussion about how education can be a tool for living a meaningful and fulfilled life.

I recognize that we live in a capitalistic world, and money keeps it spinning. But making money doesn’t have to be a person’s only focus in life—otherwise, there would be no teachers! It’s no secret that many people who have high-paying jobs are miserable.

I ask myself as I’m planning each lesson, “If I were a student listening to this, would I find it interesting and meaningful to my life?” If the answer is “no,” I start over until the answer is “yes.”

And if any student ever feels compelled to ask, “Mr. Perricone, what do we get if we win this competition on nutrients today?” I simply answer, “What do you get? You get smarter.”

John Perricone has been a high school health educator in Endwell, New York, for 21 years and has received seven consecutive Distinguished Teacher Awards presented by the senior class.