Rewards and school attendance; the two misunderstood concepts

Winners of a past science competition with their awards. File.

As university students prepare to go back to school, other students are already settled in and their minds are coming to grips with the school reality.  Well, to some students, returning for the start of another academic year could be the most challenging time for them.

Whereas some children are fortunate enough to have guardians to push and encourage them, others must lift themselves up if they are to assume a place in this competitive society. This takes me back to the strokes of cane that nearly halted my chances of education and the comfort of my cousin whose loathe towards education is still fresh in my mind like it happened yesterday.

40 strokes of cane on my tiny body were not because I failed mathematics or I flouted any school rules but because I chose to attend school instead of looking after the cows. My cousin, on the other hand, who the entire family loved the most and favoured for education, never wanted anything to do with studies. Gifts and rewards were given to her to persuade her to study hard, attend classes and be able to climb the hill of intelligentsia. Unfortunately, all that never worked.

After 22 years, few weeks ago, as I was going back to school aboard a Kenya Airways flight, a somewhat similar situation happened. I sat next to a parent who was taking her child back to school in Nairobi, loaded with bags of gifts and success cards from friends and family. While I was still in awe of how much this mother expressed her love to her son, she turned to him and said “look, we are tired of your class absenteeism. Mr. Peter told us that you hardly attend class.” The son replied, “mum you know I don’t like that guy, every time he comes I feel like returning back home.” “If you dare miss any class this semester, your father won’t take you to a driving school,” she responded.

Soon we landed in Nairobi. I contemplated on what impact rewards have on school attendances and I remembered that schools have been making several attempts to boost their students’ zeal for class attendance and general academic performance by giving rewards, school prizes and commendations to those who have the best records for not missing any lessons.

However, a question lingers; do they really work? Psychology of education teaches us that, at all levels of education, motivation is key given the challenges therein, though researchers such as Carly Robinson seems to disagree with the notion and remarks that, if these rewards or prizes were pledged  in advance, it makes no difference, whether pupils attend or not. Again if the rewards were retrospective, in acknowledgment of high level school attendance, it seems to have a negative impact on the winners’ future school attendance, Carly explains.

In the same way, other distinguished researchers, from Harvard University, Stanford University and the University of California, Los Angeles also had a thought over rewards and school attendance and, according to them, rewards appear to hurl “unintended messages” which could have a “demotivating” effect in the long-run.

The researchers remarked that students who win these awards are most likely going into the “inadvertent signal” that, actually, they are the definition of success, and in the end they may relax given the attention and the hype that many times come along with such awards which may compromise their studies in the long-run.

Ideally, rewards are a serious challenge to teaching and learning. It’s indeed venom that compromises the mind and make it believe that it is right, yet there is more to life than just gifts and rewards. This kind of thinking only makes students, especially those at a young age, think that they are incomparable instead of doing what is required and perform much better in the future.

Taking the stance of progressive educationists, who believe that learning should be free since it deals with the mind, it is under such circumstances that students can significantly learn and comprehend all contents rightly other than working under pressure in order to maintain the status. The end result of this may be rote learning which is not an answer to creative thinking and reasoning, the mostly talked about skills in the 21st century.

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