The Limitations of Classroom Rewards and Other Bribes

Jared Cooney Horvath is a globally recognized Science of Learning expert committed to helping teachers, students and parents achieve better outcomes through applied brain and behavioral science.

A Depressed Token Economy ...

Gold stars; smiley faces; trophies ; pizza parties; Boz Scaggs concert tickets …


These are all different iterations of the same type of ‘token economy’ reward system that is liberally applied in classrooms across the globe.


I imagine you would be hard pressed to find any school that didn’t use some form of a token economy. In fact, some schools are pushing this ‘rewards arms race’ to new extremes -- many public schools in America, for example, are now using financial incentives (including direct bank deposits) as a motivational tool.


Regardless of the specific mechanism, rewards systems are implemented with the goal of altering student behavior … and broadly speaking, they work.


However, just because something works does not mean it’s an optimal solution.


For example, imagine you went to the doctor’s office with a sore knee. The doctor could quickly eliminate your knee pain by amputating your entire leg, but it’s unlikely this approach would be the optimal one.


And sure, that example is a bit ridiculous, but my point is many people take a narrow or short-term view of rewards systems without considering the longer-term effects.


In this 'From Theory to Practice' video, I examine a classic piece of research that can help us do just that:


The Token Economy: An Evaluative Review (Alan E. Kazdin and Richard R. Bootzin)


Here are some of the questions I tackle in this installment:

  • What is the origin of the token economy, and how did it shape the reward systems that are often applied in schools and classrooms?

  • What is ‘generalizability’, and how does it impact the utility of any reward system applied across varying contexts? 

  • Do reward systems actually promote long-term behavioral changes among students, or are results simply dependent on the rewards themselves?

  • What is the ‘Crespi effect’, and how does it undermine a common strategy for using rewards systems?

  • What are three practical takeaways for schools and teachers that we can draw from this research?

Give it a watch, and let me know what you think in the YT comments section.


And, as always, if you find this video valuable, interesting and/or entertaining, you can support us by liking, sharing and subscribing to our YouTube channel ;)



Video Transcript

Hello everybody, and welcome to this week's From Theory to Practice, where I take a look at the research so you don't have to.


Now, as you may know, I have a new book out called '10 Things Schools Get Wrong (And How We Can Get Them Right)'.


So, for this series of ten videos, I've deliberately selected research papers that align with the different chapters of that book.


In this installment we're looking at Chapter 8, which is entitled Rewards: The Problem with Coercion.


The article I've selected that aligns with this chapter is called The Token Economy: An Evaluative Review by Kazdin and Bootzin.


Now as you may know, the token economy was a process developed in the 1960’s that aimed to change people's behaviors, and the idea was simple: anytime somebody performed a beneficial or a desired behavior they would receive a token.


Once any given person collected enough tokens, they could trade them in for something they really wanted like candy or cigarettes or outdoor time.


As you might guess, the token economy was largely developed within mental institutions and hospitals, with the idea being that the behavior of some patients was so aberrant that they needed a way to bring them into line so collectively everyone could therapeutically thrive.


And the programs worked well in these hospitals. In fact, they worked so well that it was quickly adopted outside of hospitals: prisons started using it; job sites started using it; and of course schools started using it as well

Click to view remainder of the transcript ...

Did You Enjoy This Post?

Help spread the idea by sharing it with your peers and colleagues ...

NOT ON THE LIST? Click below to join the LME Community ... and receive new Science of Learning articles from Dr. Jared Cooney Horvath every week!