The media recently reported "new" research findings to the effect that rewards often backfire and self-esteem is not the uplifting personal attribute once thought. As a result, schools are rethinking teaching and classroom management philosophies.
In fact, though, research showing that rewards often backfire and revealing the dark side of self-esteem has been available for quite some time. This supposedly "new" stuff simply illustrates the disconnect between research and practice in American education. More directly put, educational methodology is more driven by fad than fact.
For almost two decades, research has shown, as conclusively as social science research is capable of showing, that high self-esteem is associated with anti-social behavior. Think, for example, of bullying. It appears that the higher one's self-regard, the lower his regard for others.
The functional attribute is one that went "out" with the rest of the bathwater in the 1960s: humility and modesty. People who are humble pay attention to you. They try to figure out, in any situation, what they can do to help you and make you feel comfortable.
Concerning rewards, it has been known for quite some time that rewards often depress achievement levels. Likewise, people with high self-esteem tend to perform below their level of ability. Why? Because they believe that anything they do is worthy of merit; therefore, they do the minimum, if that.
A recent conversation with a Navy commander illustrates the point. He told me that he deals with young recruits who think they should be rewarded for whatever they do, whenever they do it, even if they do nothing more than what is minimally expected of them. They have acquired this very entitled, uncooperative attitude from their parents and schools. Their parents can be forgiven. They were doing what publications and talking heads told them to do. Educators, on the other hand, should have asked the fundamental question: Is there compelling evidence that giving rewards for adequate or even improved performance actually improves academic achievement over the long haul?
Concerning classroom behavior, rewards often backfire. Give a child who is aggressive during free play a reward for not being aggressive for 10 minutes and he is very likely to turn right around and be aggressive. He realizes, intuitively, that the only reason he is being singled out for a reward is precisely because he is aggressive; therefore, to keep the rewards coming he must continue to aggress.
If school reform fads had paid off, then today's achievement levels would be higher and classroom behavior would be better than they were in the 1960s. The opposite is the case.
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