“Penny for your thoughts?” (or some other prize?)

This morning I was the chapel speaker at a local Christian school.

Prior to being introduced, the students went through their traditional chapel procedures of “pledges” and announcements.  They then came to the part that always creates an inner conflict for me:  the awards for biblical achievement.

Some students were given prizes for learning their memory verse…others for reading through the Bible further than anyone else.  I began to wonder what the ramifications of this practice could be.

Are we teaching children that spiritual success (maturity) is based on how much one knows?  That God’s love and approval of us changes based on what we do?  Is this a breeding ground for Pharasitical self-righteousness & duty?

These are just honest, cognitive inquiries I have when I experience such practices.

At the same time I realize that motivation theory (“extrinsic motivation” in this case) is a useful tool with teaching, especially within elementary education.  And though these have useful results within the academic realm, what are the results with the realm of faith?  Can the use of this form of traditional behaviorism counter the very core teachings they are memorizing?

Sure there are other forms of motivation (i.e. teacher praise, curiosity, etc.), but I am specifically discussing what is known as “direct reinforcement strategies” most popular within academia around the 1960’s.  Should this strategy have its place within our Christian schools (and within our churches, as it currently exists within the kids ministry of my church community)?

Before answering, remember that Jesus used rewards with the promise of eternal and abundant life (now/not yet), the healing of the sick due to their faith, and with the forgiveness of the adulterous woman due to her faith.

Nothing loaded here, just some honest, inner quarreling.



~ by Dave Smith on April 21, 2008.

6 Responses to ““Penny for your thoughts?” (or some other prize?)”

  1. brain research would suggest that the most embraced actions and thoughts are those that are reinforced with some sort of reward, but that reward could be a variety of things. which would suggest that it is a natural reaction to hope for or expect a reward in response to a task that is achieved. that doesn’t answer the question of what is an appropriate reward, however…

  2. my daughter has to bring her “homework” back to kids church the following week so she can get a prize – she looks forward to it a lot.

    Paul was motived by a prize – Phil 3:14. So I thik the concept is valid…but the form seems to be in question.

    How do we as teachers make the transition from worthless earthly trinkets (prizes) to a compelling description of our priceless heavenly prize?

    Everyone needs the carrot and the stick at some level, and, in my opinion, the the unintended consequence of trinkets for bible success lends itself toward materialism in a very unsophisticated form.

  3. I spent many years of my early journey with Christ wrestling with wether or not I had prayer and read my bible enough times each week. This inner turmoil would produce tremendous amounts of guilt that was unhealthy. One day I finally realized it was about a love for Jesus and the journey that takes us on. This should be the motivating factor behind the disciplines we use to draw close to the God of the universe.

    Having been an education major I see the great value in “extrinsic motivation”.

    Let’s just make sure that when it comes to Jesus and the bible, we are also communicating the value of a relationship with Jesus rooted in his abounding grace, rather than his watchful eye or listening ear.


  4. During my time in private Christian schooling (at least during junior high and high school) most often, the kids receiving the “biblical achievement awards,” as you call them, were the same kids receiving the academic awards.

    At the high school level, Bible class isn’t as much a place to succeed spiritually as it is a place to succeed academically. And while that may sound like harsh judgment against the precedent of rewarding good work, I think it only acts to polarize the two areas of faith and academia, especially for the mediocre student, which I most definitely was.

    Just my thoughts.

  5. somehow i think we’ve got to involve students (and people in general) in experiences that provide a prize of “satisfaction” and a sense of contributing to something bigger than themselves. we can’t expect people to be solely motivated by a heavenly prize (and i think that skips out on the “prize” of living life as we were designed to…if we just have to wait for heaven someday). but we’ve got to get people involved in the world and in being redemptive change agents who radically shift and transform not just culture but the individuals in culture. who love people and realize the prize that that is.

    maybe this means less time “in the classroom”…maybe even cancelling church for a day and getting people out there being with others and serving them proactively. most christians don’t suffer from a lack of time learning…we suffer from a lack of practical practicing.

  6. Oh Harris, there you are trying to cancel church again!

    Good feedback all around. I think rewards are a good tool…and maybe like any tool, if you take it too far it becomes destructive. (i.e. studies show excessive use of extrinsic motivation can make learners dependent on the rewards…and when the rewards stop, so does the behavior.).

    Joel and otehrs bring up a good point about the other side of the coin…”intrinsic motivation,” based on the personal satisfaction from achieveing a goal (more internal).

    Just like learning is complex, so is this whole issue of motivation.

    Maybe a reward (extrinic motivation) is just the easy way out…vs. creating internal motivation, motivation from teacher praise, the development of curiosity, showing relevancy of the task, etc.

    Appreciate your feedback! Very helpful.

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