Stephen Louw

Stars and candy

When rewarding our students for their efforts works ..... and when it doesn't.

My first teaching post was at a small rural school in South Africa. I was young and inexperienced, and found classroom management difficult. 

The grade 2 teacher there was one of those natural-born-teachers who seemed to have magical control over her students. She could get the kids to do absolutely anything: sing the national anthem backwards while standing on their heads? Sure!

Rewarding behavior

How? Easy, she explained to me. She had the children in groups. The dolphins here, the damselfish there, the sharks, and so on. There was a matching wall chart and each group could earn stars to feed their respective fish. The children would sell their grandmothers to get stars. 

It would wear thin after a while, so after two months, she told me, she’d move the kids around, make new groups: the rockets, the gliders, the helicopters, and a new chart with where the little icons flew to get to the airport. The children would sell their grandmothers to move their little plane one step forward. Any group misbehaving got to move back a step – turbulence, you know. The students took this all very very seriously.

The principle of stars and rewards is a universal winner. It isn’t just with kids – adults love stars too. Starbucks uses them: buy a coffee to get this reward and that star and a kiss on the cheek. Credit card companies dish them out, airlines, Candy Crush! Everyone loves stars!

If you did Psych 101, you’ll know the ‘do this and you’ll get that’ principle is the basis of behaviorism. Psychologist B.F. Skinner and his behaviorists were able to manipulate dogs and pigeons and rats to do their bidding simply by offering rewards (or electric shocks, admittedly). 

Behaviorist ideas go back further though – in 1898 Edward Thorndike proposed the Law of Effect: behavior leading to a ‘satisfying effect’ will be repeated. In Skinnerean terms, we reinforce behavior we want by rewarding it and withdrawing the reward for behavior we wish to extinguish. This is operant conditioning.

These Behaviorist theories weren’t a weekend lark – they were thought for a long time to be the basis for how living organisms work: we are a series of behavior repertoires serving environmental contingencies.

Behaviorism was serious business, and make no mistake, there’s a lot to recommend it! I can command absolute silence from a class with simply the faintest whiff of a dinosaur sticker once I’ve established the appropriate reinforcement schedule. I can strengthen the effectiveness of my dinosaur stickers even more by delivering them on a variable ratio basis. I can also link behaviors to others I’ve previously reinforced to create a new set of habits. 

It’s wonderful to think we can manipulate people’s behavior in such astonishing ways.

Punishing the behaviorists

It’s not all roses and sunshine, though. The illusion of absolute power to manipulate behavior might make psychologists seem to be fearsome god-like creatures, and somehow or another this illusion persists with alarming tenacity. 

In reality, behaviorist ideas are long out of fashion. People aren’t bundles of behavioral responses to environmental contingencies. Children aren’t pigeons. Learning isn’t simply habit formation reinforced by a teacher with an unending supply of stickers and stars. The fact is, we can’t induce children to do our bidding for long by offering a reward or issuing a threat.

Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards is a highly readable caution on the problems we face with using bribe- er, rewards, to manipulate people. I’d recommend every sticker-giving teacher have a little read – especially chapter 8.

Extrinsic and Intrinsic motivation

Let’s look at one of the problems. Behaviorist argue that we are controlled by a desire for rewards (or a fear of punishments). However, there are some things people do without any thought of a reward. Sometimes people are at their happiest when they are just pottering about. Boys will play football without any bribes or threats because (most often) they just want to. Some people write blogs – just for the hell of it!

This is intrinsic motivation. Some people, like you perhaps, find reading intrinsically motivating, while others have to be cajoled and threatened into even contemplating picking up a book. Intrinsic motivation leads to far greater involvement and engagement than extrinsic rewards and punishments. 

It’s notoriously tricky to convert extrinsic motivation into intrinsic. Pizza Hut, for instance, launched the (in)famous Book It campaign in 1984, in which children could trade reading a book for pizza. The idea was that children’s intrinsic love for reading could be bought through pizzas, or something like that. The program cost the pizza chain around 50 million dollars, but whether or not children suddenly love reading because they will get a pizza for doing it remains unclear.

While we can’t easily change extrinsic motivation into intrinsic motivation, unfortunately we can change intrinsic into extrinsic. 

In the 1970s, two researchers working independently both came to this conclusion. Edward Deci’s research on the effect of pay on intrinsic motivation is fascinating, but as school teachers, the magic marker experiments of Mark Lepper and his colleagues from Stanford are the even more interesting. 

What he did was take some kids who liked drawing and asked them to draw. They did. One group of kids were told they would get rewarded for their drawing and were given a certificate with a nice red ribbon once they were done. Another group got no reward – they just drew and then went home. 

In the following weeks, the researchers found that the children who had been rewarded showed less interest in drawing than they had before the reward. Not only that, when they did draw, their pictures were judged to be of worse quality. The children who liked drawing but got no reward for doing so just carried on enjoying drawing.


When our children already enjoy doing something, and then we reward them for doing it, we undermine their interest in doing it. This is called the overjustification effect. 

The implications should be clear. When children already enjoy something and we start handing out stickers or candy for doing it, we may be killing their interest in it. In Lepper’s charmingly dry academic prose: “the study provides empirical evidence of an undesirable consequence of the unnecessary use of extrinsic rewards, supporting the case of the exercise of discretion in their application.”

It’s not all bad news. Kohn tells a humorous tale of how overjustification can be put to good use. 

Some troublesome kids took pleasure in shouting taunts and slurs at an old man as they passed his house on their way back from school. One day the old man met the children and told them that the next day he would pay a dollar to anyone who shouted insults. The next day the boys pitched up and hurled every kind of abuse they could think of with wild abandon. It was awesome. The old man went up, gave them each a dollar for their efforts and told them the following morning, if they came back and did it again, they’d each get 25 cents. They did, and as the old man duly gave them each their earnings for the day, he told them the following day when they came back they would get 10c. For pennies, they said with scorn, they wouldn’t bother.

Steve has been a teacher and teacher trainer for over 30 years, and is currently a lecturer on the Master’s in TESOL program at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi in Bangkok.


Hi Brenda

Sure, I most certainly can. Please get in touch with me at Spencer International on my email address and I'll show you how you can start the process of applying for online teaching organizations.

By Steve, Chichester College Bangkok (29th January 2020)

Hi Steve
I am keen to get involved with on line tutoring ... especially in English. Can you put me in touch with an organization that will guide me in the right direction.
Thanks so much

By Brenda Tod, South Africa (22nd January 2020)

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