Ethical Dilemmas in Rewards and Punishments in the Classroom

by Geoffrey Mills

The carrot and stick approach has been used in the classroom for centuries even if historically more emphasis has been placed on physical forms of punishment. Changes in laws and developments in teaching theory have resulted in a shift in emphasis on the offering of incentives for good behaviour or good work. While certainly effective in influencing behavior in the short term many educators question whether the dangling of prizes or the constant threat of punishment has a counterproductive effect on behavior in the long term.

Manipulation

It might be argued that the use of reward and punishment is a manipulative form of behavior management, where punishment introduces an element of threat and the reward becomes a kind of bribe. This view would suggest that children are learning to change their behavior patterns for the wrong reasons, i.e. because there is something in it for them. In fact the offering of rewards gives the child a reason to withdraw his cooperation once a reward is no longer on offer.

Fairness

The use of a reward system is complicated by the need for a scrupulously fair system in which all students are seen to receive equal treatment. Are incentives to be awarded for effort, for example, or for achievement? There are problems associated with either. Effort is subject to interpretation and in any case fails to account for differences in work quality. Rewards offered for achievement alone can serve to undermine the efforts and morale of the less able. A fair reward system which takes into account both effort and quality is difficult to achieve and if mismanaged may very easily appear inconsistent or contradictory.

Poor Behavior

There has always been a classroom risk that the most poorly behaved students are the ones who receive the most attention. The administration of punishment diverts attention from those who are working hard or behaving well. Students who are poorly behaved are often offered incentives for doing what the well-behaved have been doing all along. This in itself may breed resentment or negativity.

Motivation

A strong argument has been made supporting the idea that long-erm cognitive commitment to learning and decent behavior can be undermined by artificial systems of reward and punishment. The argument further goes that a school should concentrate on fostering a genuine enjoyment of learning and a sincere appreciation of the benefits of socially conformity. In this way a student will remain internally motivated rather than driven by extrinsic stimuli. On the other hand, there is no doubt that rewards can be used effectively with younger or less mature students to boost levels of effort and achievement. It has also been argued that a micro system of reward and punishment is good preparation for a society which operates in much the same way.

Resources

  • Discipline Without Stress Punishments or Rewards; Marvin Marshall

About the Author

Geoffrey Mills has written for "Global Study Magazine," "Bookdrum" and a variety of literary magazines. He has also contributed reviews to the books "501 Great Writers" and "1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die." Mills holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Reading University and a Master of Arts in literature from London University.

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