What happens if I abolish all rewards and punishments
in my classroom, and, instead, focus on teaching
my students to pursue knowledge for its intrinsic
rewards and to do the right thing for its own sake?
My school is located in a very violent neighborhood
and there is an unusually high level of anger among
the students. Trivial comments or small incidents
often trigger temper tantrums and arguments that
derail students’ efforts to learn. To help students
learn, I must create a caring and nurturing environment
in my classroom. Classroom management techniques
that rely on rewards and punishments undermine efforts
to create such an environment—they generate tension
and hostility rather than trust and care. Therefore,
I need to find other ways that are more conducive
to building community.
The data for my research are: Teacher Journal entries;
class meeting discussions; pre- and post-Student
Motivation Surveys; and Student Journal entries.
Data and Preliminary Analysis
A. Teacher Journal Entries—Narrative
The first half of the school year was extremely
challenging. Doing away with rewards was straightforward,
but eliminating punishments was much more difficult.
Typically, I would begin the day seeking students’
cooperation by appealing to their sense of right
and wrong, and things would usually go pretty well;
right after lunch, however, students would get out
of control, and I would be forced to resume using
threats and punishments. I routinely became so exhausted
that I literally could not stand up to teach in
the afternoons. More than once, I entertained the
possibility of not coming back the following year.
The Winter Break restored my energy and enthusiasm.
I had concluded that rewards and punishments were
“necessary evils” that I must continue to use as
stopgap measures. This resolution lifted a huge
emotional burden off my shoulders. I began to invest
more time and energy to building community in my
room and engaging students in discussions of matters
of right and wrong. I resumed holding regular class
meetings in January and created a class council
in March. Through these vehicles, students actively
discussed problems that affected the whole class
and collaborated to find solutions.
B. Class Meetings
My first class meeting in September was a waste
of time—students were constantly playing and yelling
at each other. As a result, I stopped. In January,
I resumed holding regular class meetings. While
it was still difficult to keep students focused,
our discussions did gradually become more purposive
C. Student Survey Results
The results of the pre- and post-Student Motivation
Surveys show that students had conflicting feelings
about intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation factors.
For example, while many more students cited intrinsic
motivation factors for improvements in academic
performance in the post- than in the pre-survey,
the opposite is true for improvements in classroom
behavior—many more students cited extrinsic motivation
D. Student Journals:
Student journal entries revealed that nearly all
students were in favor of having class meetings
and a class council because these vehicles allowed
them to express their feelings about the classroom
and to collaborate to make it better. But students
were troubled by the disruptive and disrespectful
behaviors of their classmates.
Further Analysis and Reflections
- It may be too emotionally challenging to try
to abolish all rewards and punishments in one
stroke, especially in an inner-city school with
long-standing discipline problems. Therefore,
a transitional period to phase them out may be
- Rewards and punishments cannot be abolished
in a vacuum; a strong sense of community and students’
ability to make decisions of right and wrong must
be in place beforehand.
- The tension and hostility engendered by the
use of punishments did not destroy my relationship
with my students only because I continuously bonded
with my students.
- Attitudes and habits
change slowly. Therefore, teachers toiling to
promote social and moral development must have
a strong determination and a clear vision to be
able to withstand the inevitable uncertainty and
- “We teach who we are.” To be a role model for
my students, I must first address the anger, impatience,
and the sense of inadequacy that I struggled with.
Policy Change Recommendations
- Policy-makers should include the social, emotional,
and moral development of children in their discussion
and measurement of student growth.
- Organizations interested in promoting Character
Education should educate teachers and administrators
on classroom management methods that do not rely
on rewards and punishments.
- Principals should minimize the use of rewards
and punishments in their schools and urge their
teachers to do the same.
- Teachers should build classroom community and
engage students in moral discussions; for example,
by holding regular class meetings and creating