Gold stars, best-student awards and other reward-focused incentive systems have
long been part of the currency of schools throughout the world. Typically intended to
motivate or reinforce student learning, such techniques have been widely used and
advocated by educators everywhere. In his speech during Singapore’s National Day Rally
2007, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong stated that there will be a launch of two initiatives
in secondary schools, namely the Malay Special Programme (MSP). In the
implementation of these programmes, incentives like bonus points for junior college
admission will be given to encourage students to study Malay as a third language. This
further illustrates the significant role extrinsic rewards have in education and its
numerous policies. Even on a national scale, extrinsic rewards have been acknowledged
to be able to motivate students’ learning.
However, in recent years, a few commentators have questioned the widespread
use of rewards and punishment. A major point of controversy is that in educational
settings, the use of rewards and incentives can undermine students’ intrinsic motivation
(Deci & Ryan, 1980). Since intrinsic motivation is essential for learning and adjustment
in educational settings (Ryan & La Guardia, 1999), this issue has become a hotbed for
debate. Several competing theories had been formulated to account for reward effects
whereas procedures and conclusions reached in early studies were questioned and
contested (Scott, 1975; Feingold & Mahoney, 1975). A meta-analysis (Cameron & Pierce,
1994) concluded that that the undermining effect was minimal and largely
inconsequential for educational policies. However, a more recent meta-analysis showed
that tangible rewards do indeed have a substantial undermining effect (Deci, Koestner &
Ryan, 1999). If that is true, the incentive systems educators designed were actually doing
more harm than good. How then should rewards and punishments be used to motivate
students’ learning, if they were to be used at all?
Before deciding on the educational process, it is important to sketch some
important prerequisites of education and learning. It makes a vast difference whether
education is viewed as a pursuit of an ideal or simply a means to achieve external goals.
The selection of route will serve as an important implication for the choice of content and
teaching methods, as well as defined the direction of students’ learning.
B. F. Skinner’s operant theory has had a powerful impact on the world of
education (1951). The role of rewards and punishment in classroom settings is such that
when added to a situation, reinforcement occurs, making the performance of the
behaviour more likely or unlikely in the future. In Skinner’s approach to a learning
environment, goals are established in terms of behavioural outcomes and experiences are
specifically designed to achieve these goals.
“Education is the establishing of behaviour which will be of advantage to the
individual and to others at some future time” (Skinner, 1953). As an extension of
Thorndike’s law of effect (Iversen 1992), Skinner maintained that all behaviour are
motivated by rewards. Operant conditioning should be highly effective when used with
children. Humans learn things by having certain aspects of their behaviour reinforced.
Rewards and punishment are defined as positive and negative reinforcement respectively.
By reinforcing desired behaviour immediately and appropriately, students can be
conditioned to develop appropriate behaviour and attitudes towards learning. Extrinsic
rewards are offered to students in order to compel them to attempt and complete the
academic task at hand as they provide the pleasure of satisfaction the task itself cannot
provide. They can be the very aphrodisiac to arouse students to attempt tasks which...
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