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August 14, 2018

Bribes or Incentives? How to Tell the Difference.

Sometimes student incentive programs look a lot like bribery, like the proverbial carrot on the stick. Here's how to tell them apart.
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There's a difference between giving a student a reward when you need them to do something and having rewards available if they choose to act appropriately.

“If you finish this worksheet, I’ll give you a sticker!” a teacher says.

“Answer a question and you can get a point!” another exclaims.

From the outside looking in, it can seem like the proverbial carrot on a stick—teachers coaxing students to academic achievement, or at least to good behavior. It’s like that parent in the grocery store, promising ice cream if their child will get up off the floor and stop throwing a tantrum. It might work now. But is it a long term solution?

No matter how you feel about incentives, research has shown that they work. A study by Harvard University’s Roland G. Fryer found that “well-designed rewards can improve achievement at a relatively low cost,” and that extrinsic rewards don’t destroy intrinsic motivation. That’s good news for teachers who rely on rewards and consequences in the classroom—but it doesn’t shake the creeping feeling that we might be bribing students to success.

So what’s the difference between an incentive and a bribe?

Bribes are about adults; Incentives are about students.

The difference between an incentive and a bribe is who, in the end, holds the power. If a teacher offers a student a bribe—she’s saying, If you do this thing I need you to, then I will give you this reward you want. It’s all about the teacher’s needs, and the item of value that she has in her back pocket. In that exchange, all of the power belongs to the teacher. If a teacher offers a student an incentive—she’s saying, if you do this thing that is good for you, then you will earn this reward that is available for everyone. It’s all about the student, and the reward is something that anyone can earn, but only those determined and focused enough can achieve it. In that exchange, all of the power belongs to the student. Some might argue that the difference is in semantics. But how we talk to students matters. How we describe rewards and consequences? That matters.

Bribes are immediate; Incentives require time.

It’s easy to identify a bribe because most often, it comes from an exasperated adult in need of a quick fix. (i.e., If you stop doing that, I’ll give you something immediately.) Unfortunately, the parent who promises ice cream to a defiant child is actually teaching the child that defiance = ice cream. The teacher who offers an incentive at the moment of sub-standard behavior or academic performance, teaches the child that poor choices = good outcomes. Not a good idea. Real incentives teach students that hard work is something that pays off in the long run—not at this very instant. That requires teachers to consider incentives long before problem behaviors or academic struggles are at hand. It means crafting longer term and more sophisticated systems where students can earn privileges and opportunities after days, weeks, or even months of consistent effort. Whether you choose LiveSchool or another system to create goals that students can reach—it’s important to layout the framework of long-term rewards early, so students have something to work towards, not something to grab at a moment’s notice.

Bribes are arbitrary; Incentives are logical.

There must be a connection between a behavior and the reward. For instance, giving a child candy for reading a chapter in a book? That’s a bribe. Sure, children might like candy, but it has nothing to do with reading. An incentive needs a logical connection to the behavior you want to reward. For example, children who finish a book within a certain timeframe could earn the privilege of choosing their next book. A student who achieves perfect attendance should earn the best parking spot in the school. A student with the highest grades in class should earn a chance to teach. See what we did there? Logical incentives help children learn to repeat good behavior. Logical incentives teach them to trust that their good choices—and nothing else—lead to rewards. And that’s a lesson worth teaching.

Looking for more incentive ideas? Check out some incentive ideas here!

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