Stein column: Why gratitude is better than prizes

Rob Stein
Superintendent's Corner
Rob Stein

As the new year approaches, we often look back to reflect and share gratitude. Giving thanks isn’t just embedded in most religious traditions; it’s also supported by science. Studies show that the very act of giving thanks tends to improve social connection, mental well-being and happiness.

For this reason, and because it’s the right thing to do, the Roaring Fork Schools make an effort to build demonstrations of gratitude into our regular work. We close every board meeting, for example, with expressions of appreciation. So, as we close the calendar year, I want to express gratitude for our students, staff and community for another amazing year lived and worked well together.

Sharing appreciation is distinct from and healthier than other formal measures of recognition. Our schools occasionally get requests to nominate teachers and students for awards or prizes. While we always appreciate the intention of honoring our teachers, staff and students, we are reluctant to participate in projects that entail awards or prizes or that celebrate or benefit only a small number of individuals. These well-intentioned efforts can inadvertently backfire and create disunity in our crew.

There is a body of literature pointing to ways that rewards can sometimes do harm and decrease the very behaviors they are attempting to cultivate. Alfie Kohn argues in his book, “Punished by Rewards,” that offering rewards or incentives usually causes harm. A noted contrarian, Kohn often puts things in very strong language. He writes, “If your objective is to get people to obey an order, to show up on time and do what they’re told, then bribing or threatening them may be sensible strategies. But if your objective is to get long-term quality in the workplace, to help students become careful thinkers and self-directed learners, or to support children in developing good values, then rewards, like punishments, are absolutely useless.”

While his language is strong, the gist of his argument is well supported by cognitive psychologists and others who study human motivation. In schools, we aspire for intrinsic motivation, which usually takes place when people are allowed to find interest and meaning in what they are doing. Extrinsic motivators tend to be superficial, short-lived and counterproductive.

A scientific study published by Harvard University in 2018 examines whether awards make a difference. In a randomized experiment involving more than 15,000 people, the authors found that, contrary to what they had hypothesized, “prospective awards” — where people knew in advance what behaviors would be rewarded — produced no effect; whereas “retrospective awards” — such as an award recognizing teacher heroism after the fact — decreased the desired behavior moving forward.

There are many similar studies and articles arguing against the efficacy of awards and pointing out their harmful effects, and very little actual research supporting the use of awards and prizes. And yet, the practice is quite common.

Awards seem to be better, or at least less harmful, when they align with what we know about human motivation. In our school district’s work with adults, we have been influenced by Daniel Pink, who argues that a more productive and engaged workforce is motivated by autonomy, mastery and purpose. Therefore, we organize our work into teams that work together in common purpose and encourage them to set their own goals and measures of success. We often call out and celebrate accomplishments, often highlighting group achievements rather than singling out individuals.

When the intrinsic rewards of improving student learning are what we all share in common, we avoid singling out individuals for special remuneration. We adhere to salary schedules, all of which are publicly available, so that all employees know that they will be compensated equitably. All additional health care and retirement benefits are equally available to all eligible employees. In rare cases when a financial windfall allowed us to pay a bonus, we distributed it equitably across the workforce.

One reason that some kinds of awards might work is that they provide opportunities for communities to coalesce around symbolic meaning. We imbue our heroes, for example, with positive attributes, and hold them up as embodying ideals to which we should all aspire.

Heroes in this category, however — such as Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King — rarely benefit from such recognition and often meet an untimely demise. Still, if done right, lifting up individuals who show exemplary behavior might have a positive influence on others. Our own Autumn Rivera was just awarded Colorado Teacher of the Year because she embodies many attributes we hope all educators would emulate (May she live a longer life than some of our other heroes!).

For these reasons, we strive to seek ways to celebrate individual and group achievements, express gratitude for acts that contribute to the well-being of the community, and provide positive examples that others might learn from or emulate rather than singling out individuals for awards, especially those that come attached to prizes or compensation.

We also continue to encourage our staff members and students to pursue their own interests, to have autonomy in their work and to pursue improvements in their craft.

As you reflect on the year drawing to a close, consider sharing gratitude with those who have made a difference, perhaps a teacher, food service worker or bus driver in your child’s school.

Rob Stein is superintendent of Roaring Fork District schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt.

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