Rewards: How to use rewards to help children learn – and why teachers don’t use them well


Rewards: How to use rewards to help children learn – and why teachers don’t use them well

(11 customer reviews)
5.00 out of 5 based on 10 customer ratings


Have you used rewards at home or in the classroom to bring out the best in a child? Click here to tell us your story!

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Denial of the effectiveness of incentives in K-12 education is a foundational idea of progressive educational philosophy and practice. Learning is easier and faster when properly designed incentive systems are used, but teachers are trained not to use them, almost entirely for ideological reasons.

Abandoning incentives, as many contemporary educators have done, is unfair to students and in some cases may permanently damage their ability to grow into responsible and productive adults. Opposition to incentives in education is also the philosophical basis of liberal opposition to merit pay for teachers and expanding school choice programs such as charter schools, vouchers, and tax credits.

The time is right for a book that forcefully and effectively defends the use of incentives and rewards in K-12 education. Failure to use rewards in classrooms has contributed to the poor academic performance of children, a crisis we must address if we want to preserve our freedom and prosperity.

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Weight .75 lbs

Joseph Bast is president and CEO of The Heartland Institute, a 29-year-old national nonprofit research center located in Chicago, Illinois. According to a recent telephone survey, among state elected officials The Heartland Institute is among the nation’s best-known and most highly regarded “think tanks.”


Dr. Herbert Walberg is a senior fellow with The Heartland Institute and chairman of its Board of Directors. He is also a distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution and a member of the Koret Task Force on K–12 Education, and a professor emeritus and University Scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His research focuses on educational productivity and human accomplishments.


We are all internally motivated sometimes to do the right thing or try hard. But at other times, we need external motivation: a bonus from our employer,  a hug from a friend, a smile from a child. It doesn’t take much, frankly, and even small rewards can brighten our day and keep us going in the right direction.

Our children and students are no different. Using rewards at home and in class can help children focus on their studies, achieve more academically, graduate on time, and become more productive members of society. The research on this is very clear and not controversial. It’s also just plain common sense.

Have you used rewards at home or in the classroom to bring out the best in a child? We’d love to hear your story!

And, because we know a little external motivation goes a long way, once a week in January 2015 we’ll send a $25 Amazon gift card to the person whose story has attracted the most “likes.” So tell us your story here, and then be sure to share it with family and friends!


11 reviews for Rewards: How to use rewards to help children learn – and why teachers don’t use them well

  1. Eric Hanushek

    Walberg and Bast have produced what is best described as a practical tour de force into the world of incentives and rewards. They carefully document what the research literature says, debunk much of the public misunderstandings, and then consider the actual application of the principles along with the evaluations of such applications. Bravo!
    Eric Hanushek
    Paul and Jean Hanna Senior Fellow
    Hoover Institution of Stanford University

  2. Jay P. Greene

    In this wonderfully accessible book, Walberg and Bast address an incredibly important and complex issue: How do we motivate children to succeed? As it turns out, some of what people think they know about the answer to this question turns out to be wrong. By carefully and clearly describing rigorous research, Walberg and Bast show how well-designed incentives could be used by parents and educators to instill in young people the drive to succeed.
    Jay P. Greene
    Department Head and 21st Century Chair in Education Reform
    Department of Education Reform
    University of Arkansas

  3. Lisa Graham Keegan

    Rewards confirms what great teachers know: Our children are driven to gain confirmation of their genuine success. In the clearest possible terms, Bast and Walberg make the case for rewarding a child’s achievement honestly and consistently. This work is long overdue and valuable for teachers and parents alike
    Lisa Graham Keegan
    CEO, Education Breakthrough Network
    Former Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction
    Author, Simple Choices: Thoughts on choosing environments that support who your child is meant to be

  4. Jane S. Shaw

    Some educators reject the idea of rewarding students for academic achievement, claiming that children intrinsically love to learn and that rewards may undermine that love of learning. But Herbert J. Walberg and Joseph L. Bast point out that those claims are shaky at best. In this clearly written book, the authors discuss empirical studies that show tremendous successes from rewards, whether they are grades on tests or “play money” that can be used to purchase items at school. The authors place these findings into the broad context of today’s changing school environment, increasingly shaped by online learning and choice programs like vouchers and charter schools. They conclude that a realistic understanding of how learning occurs can transform our public schools.
    Jane S. Shaw
    John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy
    Raleigh, North Carolina

  5. Pam Benigno

    Rewards is a refreshing and comprehensive look at the benefits of using rewards in all areas of K-12 education, including school choice. The authors explain when the government helps break down barriers to parents choosing the best learning environment for their children, it brings lasting rewards for parents and children, and for society as a whole.
    Pam Benigno
    Director, Education Policy Center
    Independence Institute

  6. Mitch Pearlstein

    I eventually did well academically but I was a terrible junior high and high school student back in Queens in the early and mid-‘60s. This might have had something to do with how I rarely did any homework or read any of the books I was supposed to. I’ve long claimed there wasn’t anyone back then, from Governor Rockefeller on down, who could have gotten me do so. I’ve also long claimed that in developing grand education reforms we generally downplay the simple fact that, at the end of school days, great numbers of students simply won’t be interested in cooperating. How to more effectively motivate kids not inclined to do their homework or read assigned books? For their sake and everyone’s, please read this path-breaking and invaluable book by Herb Walberg and Joe Bast.
    Mitch Pearlstein
    Founder and President
    Center of the American Experiment

  7. Will Fitzhugh

    The authors have analyzed the information available, and they argue that rigorous research shows that properly designed rewards achieve desired changes in behavior, for both students and teachers. I have noticed that Progressive schools which eliminate awards for academic achievement as elitist still keep score in school games, and still pay the teachers. In this work, the authors have suggested a number of reward strategies, some old and some still being tested. This book will surely stimulate yet more useful discussion of the best ways to influence the elusive and essential motivations of the various people (including students) in our schools.
    Will Fitzhugh
    The Concord Review

  8. Charlene K. Haar

    Walberg and Bast have created a book that not only identifies problems but offers solutions for improving life-long learning! Fortunately for readers, the solutions can be implemented by parents and grandparents at home, teachers in K-12 classrooms, and policy-makers for schools, cities, and states. The authors have done the research, bringing together diverse but complementary data from behavioral psychology and economics, and applying the effects to learning. Rewards can and do motivate; let’s get started!
    Charlene K. Haar

  9. Charles L. Glenn, EdD, PhD

    Thinking about education – as contrasted with sound educational practice – has been dominated since Rousseau by an unrealistically optimistic view of human nature. From Pestalozzi, Horace Mann, and John Dewey down to present-day teacher educators, the prevailing theme has been that learning should be made intrinsically rewarding, even entertaining, that schools will blossom if teachers would just abandon what is pejoratively referred to as boring drill and kill.
    Herbert Walberg and Joseph Bast are by no means opposed to education that is engaging and builds upon the interests of students, but their solidly documented book challenges the naïve belief that intrinsic interest is enough, and the parallel assumption that teachers are so high-minded that there is no need to reward them for efforts going beyond the mediocre routine. Their account of how a variety of rewards function in families as well as in schools is bracingly realistic and packed with practical strategies. It upsets many of the enshrined pieties that have dominated discussion about education.
    Charles L. Glenn, EdD, PhD
    Educational Leadership and Policy Studies
    Boston University

  10. Robert Holland

    From eighteenth century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau to modern pop psychologist Alfie Kohn, progressives have maintained that children are naturally motivated to learn, and that to offer them achievement incentives demolishes their zest for learning. This well-researched book is a powerful antidote to such fanciful thinking. Walberg and Bast draw from economics and psychology to demonstrate how carefully designed rewards immensely benefit students, parents, and entire schools. Their work is packed with many practical, incentive-based ideas that parents, teachers, and school policy-makers could put to use to boost the quality of education for America’s young.
    Robert Holland
    Senior Fellow
    The Heartland Institute
    To Build a Better Teacher: The Emergence of a Competitive Education Industry
    and Not With My Child, You Don’t

  11. Taylor Smith

    A highly-readable, well-researched treatise on how appropriate use of rewards can dramatically enhance learning and can and should be better integrated in our school systems. Opponents argue reward systems diminish a child’s internal motivation, but Walberg and Bast point out the research behind such claims is shaky, and that far more reliable research as well as numerous case studies demonstrate the immense power of rewards to help children learn important skills such as self-discipline, deferring gratification, and setting “SMART” (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-Bound) goals, which work together to SUPPLEMENT a student’s motivation to learn, rather than substitute.

    For example, I know from my own experience, as a guy interested in economics, that I was recently “internally motivated” to look into the many free online economics classes offered on the several MOOC platforms available to further my understanding of the subject. But I wasn’t sure if I was THAT interested in economics that I would enjoy studying it for four hours every Saturday and Sunday morning for three straight months without receiving any real course credit or any other discernible benefit. However, once I learned I could gain a verified certificate signed by the professor and endorsed by the hosting University that can be shared on social media, that essentially “cinched” it for me to take the course and now as of this writing I’m one week away from completing it. In “Rewards,” Walberg and Bast draw from the best research in psychology and economics to explain exactly why my experience with online education is not surprising at all from a scientific or a rational point of view.

    Research and case studies aside, teachers, parents, and policymakers will all be pleased to find this not just a “wonk” book. It is highly readable and best of all, contains real, ACTIONABLE advice on how to utilize rewards to help your child or student learn and succeed – including the do’s and don’ts of what to say to your child if they’re struggling, and how such advice might differ depending on the child’s age. If you’re a policymaker, the last section of the book describes innovative policy solutions that take advantage of the many benefits from using rewards and describes how such policies have already worked in the real world.

    Reading about U.S. education can be depressing at times. “Rewards” however, is an optimistic, and best of all, practical guide to how U.S. education can be improved one child at a time.

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