Did the founding fathers have prize boxes? Probably not, and neither should our students. Our guest, Headmaster Chris Stevens, tells us why extrinsic reward systems are a form of student management that do not build souls. We are what we love, and if we are in the business of building affections, then parents and teachers need to re-evaluate why rewards are not all they are cracked up to be. Listen in…

rewardsMr. Stevens, a Pennsylvania native, attended St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland and received a Masters in Theology from Dallas Theological Seminary. With past leadership in both classical Christian, homeschool, and public schools, Mr. Stevens brings his diverse experience to Cornerstone Classical School where he serves as Headmaster. Chris is a consultant with Ahart Solutions, a classical-friendly educational consulting business.

He enjoys reading about history, philosophy, science, and education. A few of his recent favorites include Tyranny of the Experts and The Beautiful Tree. Other pastimes include camping, water sports, and building things.

He is married to Shannon and they have three children who attend Cornerstone, Katherine (13), Mary Arthur (11), and Jerome (6).


Why Rewards Are Not Such A CrackerJack Idea for Students – Chris Stevens

What is your earliest memory of getting a prize or reward as a kid?

Perhaps you, and even your grandparents, remember the thrill of buying a box of Cracker Jacks from the drug store? Immortalized in the 1908 song, “Take Me out to the Ballgame”, Cracker Jacks consisted of candy coated popcorn, the peanuts that fell to the bottom of the box…and always, always a toy prize! Whistles, badges, and that those puzzles you would tilt to roll little metal balls into the holes.

Fast forward to today and you know that prizes and rewards permeate our culture – from restaurants to radio shows to schools and sports. Children often receive them for just showing up or doing nothing at all!

On a recent episode of BaseCamp Live, Davies Owens discussed this prevalance with Chris Stevens, Headmaster at Cornerstone Classical School in Salina, Kansas. They drilled down to the negative effects that a rewards-based system has on students, particularly in smaller classical Christian schools.

Stevens calls these extrinsic motivational systems “token economies” that utilize anything such as gold stars, pencils, candy, trophies, green lights, red lights, and behavior charts offering rewards for complying.

Not just a public school problem

Because many schools are not allowed to talk about God and the soul, they use externals to help manage the students.  However, in a classical Christian School, “We want the law of God written on their hearts, not a light to tell what kind of day they are having.”

However, according to Owens’ assessment,“Many of our teachers come from public schools and are taught the Trivium and classical content but not classical pedagogy* in student management.” Yes, even well intentioned schools fall into this trap of giving rewards.

What is wrong with giving fun rewards as a management tool?

Living in the real world is messy business, so don’t rewards help manage the mess? Yes, rewards manipulate the environment and control students, but they also give the children the message that they can’t behave unless the teacher is present.

On the other hand,“A Christian school should have a little bit of mess, because if there’s no mess, there’s no place to introduce the gospel,” explains Stevens.

Rather than “institutionalizing” the students’ behavior and weaknesses with tokens, Stevens recommends letting them experience the consequence of their choices as well as the success of their independence. Children need the chance to choose obedience or disobedience, rather than the pressure to comply.

The ultimate goal is that a student choose the right path because of an internal compass, not a tangible reward.

Reminders to parents and teachers

Stevens says sometimes rewards certainly can work, but should be given sparingly, temporarily for events such as Reading Rally, and not used to avoid problems.  Let the end result be a celebration of what is accomplished rather than the prize awarded.

Headmasters and principals need to be patient with teachers. They are in the messy but important business of helping souls and they don’t want to fall into a reward-based system for short-term gain.

As Owens points out, as far as we know, the founding fathers likely did not have prize boxes to motivate them. Many gave their lives for what they believed without the motivation of trophies and trinkets. Their eyes and their affections were on a bigger prize. The classical Christian model helps shape souls so they will be drawn to do the hard work that leads to lasting rewards.

In case you are wondering, Cracker Jacks are still around. And so are the prizes. As a sign of the digital times, in 2016 prizes became “codes” which can be used to play nostalgic games on the Cracker Jack app.

Key Takeaway

To encourage affections for what is beautiful rather than commercial or temporal, read James K.A. Smith’s You Are What You Love (2016).  Teachers need to consider how often they offer tokens to control behavior. Parents should count how often trinkets and rewards come their child’s way and eliminate using them to control or reward behavior. For instance, one big culprit is rewarding children with time on the phone or iPad to play games.  Model for your children what is important and lasting rather than temporal and disposable.

*Pedagogy – the study of the methods and activities of teaching

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4 comments on “Why Rewards Are Not Such A CrackerJack Idea for Students – Chris Stevens

  1. Kristopher Foster Jan 30, 2019

    Love this line: “because if there’s no mess, there’s no place to introduce the gospel.”

    I also agree with the sentiment of the podcast that we need to teach students to love the things that are precious, not the things that are shiny and temporal.

    I don’t think, and Mr. Owens would probably agree, that all “temporal” prize incentives are bad (and he implies so in the podcast). It’s a tricky subject that, in the end, needs a balanced answer. There are so many factors involved that I would certainly feel Pharisaical making a hard line decision. For example, is the person saved? It is true that an unsaved person can’t love the things of God (the non-temporal things), so is it wrong to use temporal motivations with the purpose of pointing a child’s heart to the eternal things? I don’t think so. In a sense, isn’t that what God is doing all around us – marriage, parenting, friendships, work, learning, etc. Aren’t all temporal things pointing us to the ultimate joy we find in the relationship between Christ and the Church, with our heavenly Father, with the new heavens and new earth. I look forward knowing Christ face to face, but until then I rejoice in the way I can see Him in a mirror dimly. Just because I enjoy the temporal benefits of my marriage, parenting, or friendships, doesn’t mean that I don’t long for and respect the reality to which all of those shadows point. Where we fall short as teachers, I believe, is not in giving out prizes, but failing to do the extra work of using the simple shining things of this life to point to the radiant glory of God.

    Very helpful podcast overall! I’ve enjoyed interacting with its content.

    • Great insights Kristopher. For sure I think we can use temporal things to motivate us and awaken us to God’s presence and creation. We live in the physical world, with senses and desires that are part of our earthly creation. I am a fan of Kuyper who is famously quoted for saying “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” So for sure we should inspire students and each other to see God’s daily temporal benefits as a reflection, to your point, of the radiant glory of God. I think the main point is that we too often reduce the temporal to what is simply something base, material and even disposable (a plastic toy or candy) as the goal, rather than loving the good, or simply celebrating and appreciating something for its intrinsic beauty and worth. Thanks for your comment!

  2. Laura Dougherty Jun 17, 2019

    Great podcast. I’m left with the question, however, doesn’t punishment (or the more friendly word, discipline) fall in the same category of extrinsic motivation? Is Mr. Stevens advocating more of a natural consequences approach to infractions in the classroom rather than imposed consequences like moving your clip to red which often entails missing recess, a note home to mom and dad, or a trip to the principal’s office? As a teacher, I have used the color system as a way of visually demonstrating to my students the consequences that they have earned for their behavior. So I wonder, without a system like this in place, is the teacher left with mere verbal correction? I think discipline is clearly taught in the Bible, and so I would love to hear what Mr. Steven’s approach to it is given his view of extrinsic motivation.

    • Davies Owens Jun 27, 2019

      Laura, I can’t speak fully for Chris Stevens but my sense from the interview was that the concern was when rewards are used as the primary means of motivating student behavior in modern classrooms.

      I agree we do need to provide clear instruction to children and a simple visual chart can at times be helpful, provided it isn’t the primary means of shaping affections and behaviors. We also want to avoid the big buzz in the classroom of who is on the board and who is not (I can think of my own children telling me the first thing after school was who “got on the board” or if they got on the board – not the first thing I would hope they learned all day.)

      The filter, in my mind, is always what is really driving this child’s outward actions? Is it simply to please the teacher, or to avoid something negative, or are they being motivated out of a deeper desire to love God and neighbor? If a prize box is the real motivation for doing well on a spelling quiz, then learning to love spelling itself, and using words carefully, will be challenging to foster. Natural or verbal consequences should be a big part of correction which includes asking questions to get at what is really behind a particular behavior. I remember years ago a grammar school child who had been caught cheating. It would have been easy to just hand out a punishment but instead this head of school took time to really figure out what motivated the cheating and found out the root sin was actually pride and a fear of failing. It opened up healthy conversation and repentance around fear and pride. That level is where we want to try to get.

      Thanks again for listening and taking the time to write!


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