Why Stickers, Pizza Parties, and Tickets Didn’t Work in My Classroom

This blog series was authored by our own A.J. Juliani, Head of Learning & Growth.

Why Stickers, Pizza Parties, and Tickets Didn’t Work in My Classroom

It was towards the middle of my first year teaching (8th grade) when it hit me: My class was spinning out of control, and it was all my fault.

I was an eager first-year teacher, with an awesome mentor who taught Language Arts with me on the same middle school team. My students were busy writing papers, doing cool projects that we came up with, and reading in literature circles. I was also lucky to have a lot of technology in the classroom early in my career. It was a really good spot to start teaching, and I was messing it all up.

You see, when my students started to bring their homework in late (or not at all) towards the end of the first marking period, and when our class discussions around a rather boring novel took a downward spiral to the “quiet zone” (I was good at wait time, but not that good!)–I tried problem-solve the issue.

Instead of asking my colleagues what they might do, I thought I had the perfect remedy to fix the situation (in reality this was my biggest mistake).

I went to the local teacher store (Becker’s) and bought up a whole roll of tickets. Yes, those tickets.

I came back to school the next week and told my students all about our new “rewards” program for our class. It was way too complicated and included “roll over” tickets that could be used as extra credit points for their end of the marking period grade…I know, a bit ridiculous.

Still, in the beginning, it worked.

Students were more attentive during our class discussions, offering up opinions and trying to talk as much as possible. Homework was turned in on-time more frequently, and the kids were excited to come to class with a chance to earn some extra tickets!

During the second marking period, things began to unravel. I handed out a new assignment about a non-fiction book we were reading.

The first question from my students was, “Is there a way to get extra tickets for reading the book faster?”

The second question was, “Mr. J, when can we get tickets with this activity?”

And so on, for the next 10 minutes…all about tickets.

Then at the close of the second marking period, things started to really get interesting (or out of control depending on your perspective).

Kids were trading tickets with each other. I’m pretty sure I saw a “ticket deal” go down in the hallway where money might have been exchanged for tickets.

It was a free for all. I had messed up big time.

But, I kept digging a bigger whole.

The start of the third marking period I told my students tickets were not going to be used for grades any more. That they could only be used for “whole class” activities like a pizza party.

Most of my students complained, but I stuck to my guns and we moved forward with the new “tickets for pizza” program in Mr. J’s class.

I had set an arbitrary number of 100 tickets.

Now, every day in class students would ask why they didn’t get a ticket for participating, or for handing something in early, or for doing something above and beyond.

I wilted under the pressure and started handing them out more frequently, thinking that at least it was just for pizza, and not for grades.

When we finally got to have the pizza party (a short three weeks later) I was exhausted. I told my students we were going to take a ticket break.

And consequently, they revolted.

Homework started to come in late, class discussions went back to a whole lot of wait time, and I even received a few parent emails asking why I had stopped the tickets because their son/daugther was really motivated and now had nothing to look forward to (ouch!).

I had realized (the extremely hard way), that tickets, pizza parties, and other rewards did not work in my classroom. It was a humbling and embarassing situation. And one that I completely brought upon myself.

If Tickets Don’t Work, Then What Does Work?

“What rewards and punishments do is induce compliance, and this they do very well indeed. 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. In fact, as we are beginning to see, they are worse than useless—they are actually counterproductive.” 
― Alfie KohnPunished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes

I was pointed in the direction of Alfie Kohn’s work when I told a colleague about my ticket debacle. Honestly, they never taught us any of this stuff (what motivates learners) in college, and teaching is a trial by fire type of job.

When I reflect back on my first year teaching, this lesson was by far the most important one I learned, and the subsequent reading I did about motivation and engagement helped me to do things way differently in my class than I ever would have if I didn’t have the ticket disaster.

In Jonathan C. Erwin’s book, The Classroom of Choice, he opens up by discussing the myths around rewards in education, and what the research actually says:

Actually, contrary to conventional wisdom, rewards are no more effective in motivating students than threats and punishment. In his book Punished by Rewards, Alfie Kohn (1993) examines the research on external incentives and concludes that the “do this and you’ll get that” approach to motivation fails. Citing hundreds of studies, Kohn discusses the reasons that incentives such as stickers, pizza parties, free time, trips to the toy barrel, and even As do not work. The most important reason for teachers may be that “rewards change the way people feel about what they do” (p. 68).

He explains that when a student hears “If you do this, then you’ll get that,” the message to the learner is “There must be something wrong with this if you have to give me that to get me to do it.”

Thus, what we are doing when we offer a reward for learning or following classroom rules, whether we realize it or not, is “killing off the interest in the very thing we are bribing them to do” (p. 72). Jensen echoes Kohn’s concerns regarding rewards, warning that “students will want [rewards] each time the behavior is required; they’ll want an increasingly valuable reward … [and that] the use of rewards actually damages intrinsic motivation” (1998, pp. 66–67).

When I dug into the many studies Kohn references in his book an emerging theme kept rising to the surface:

“All rewards have the same effect. They dilute the pure joy that comes from success itself.”

Erwin points out the work of Eric Jensen in his book, Teaching with the Brain in Mind, who echoes Kohn’s concerns regarding rewards, warning that “students will want [rewards] each time the behavior is required; they’ll want an increasingly valuable reward … [and that] the use of rewards actually damages intrinsic motivation” (1998, pp. 66–67).

There is one simple change I made as a teacher (and a change many teachers have made around the globe), that provides more opportunity for motivation, engagement, and empowerment than anything else I’ve seen.

I started to give my students choice in the learning.

Choice, it turns out, is an incredibly easy way to get kids excited about learning. Why? Well, when students have a choice their attention is not out of necessity (you must do this, in order to get ____) but instead out of interest.

Choice fuels their engagement and motivation. It fuels their learning.

Just as it still does for all of us adults. We thrive when we get to learn about something we are interested in and curious about, and we tend to go through the motions when we are forced to learn something new that we aren’t particularly interested in at the moment.

For me, the ultimate project (that was the complete opposite of my ticket disaster, was when I did a Genius Hour project with my students.

Enter Genius Hour

If you haven’t heard of Genius Hour or 20% time in the classroom, the premise is simple: Give your students 20% of their class time (or an hour each week) to learn what they want. These projects allow students to choose the content and still acquire/master skills and hit academic standards.

It doesn’t matter if you teach elementary, middle, or high school. The Genius hour and 20% time projects cover multiple standards. We’ve had teachers propose this type of learning to their administration backed by awesome research.

If you are looking for a way to bring back student motivation, engagement, and empowerment in your class this upcoming year, I believe Genius Hour is worth trying out!

I’ve seen Genius Hour been successfully implemented at every grade level. In fact, in my school district, we have Genius Hour projects running K-12. They are run differently in each grade and each class, yet there are some consistent phases that say the same.

This led me to create The Genius Hour Blueprint. The Genius Hour Blueprint covers six different phases of Genius Hour and what steps/activities you can do at each stage. It also has suggested resources, activities, and ways to share your work broken down by K-5, 6-8, and 9-12. You can download the PowerPoint file for FREE by signing up for my weekly updates here.