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

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