Copyright July 7, 1995; July 11, 2005
Learning to Work
Marshall Lev Dermer
Department of Psychology
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
For nearly two months, in the closet of a Milwaukee Public School, my
graduate students and I had struggled tutoring a third-grader. Despite
following an "effective" tutoring system closely and lavishly providing
praise whenever "J" performed well, she worked ever more slowly.
This, of course, is an old story not unique to disadvantaged children
living in 20th-century Milwaukee. In the 12th century, for example,
Rabbi Moses Maimonides, one of the greatest Jewish scholars, recognized
that many Jewish children did not value studying Torah. Perhaps the
Rabbi had told his students that they would one day benefit from hard
study and perhaps, like us, he had discovered that strategy
ineffective. Instead, he offered figs or other valued foods as rewards.
As the students advanced and their preferences changed, the rewards
also changed to clothing and then to money.
The principal of J's school was, however, no Maimonides. When I
discussed the possibility of using special rewards to motivate J's
learning, I was told that learning is its own reward. As I visited
various classrooms, however, I noticed one teacher using gold stars and
another candy to reward learning.
J's teacher used cookies as rewards. She agreed to schedule a meeting
at school with J, her mother, and my research group to discuss setting
up a home-based reward system. At the meeting, we explained that J
could earn points in the daily tutoring sessions by reading correctly
and answering comprehension questions correctly. Furthermore, that
each day J would be given a sheet documenting her earnings so that J
and her mother could enter the points into a bank book, at home that
evening. Finally, J could withdraw points to purchase rewards that had
been negotiated in a contract.
Several days later we met J and her mother at their home. Ice-cream,
cake, or extra television time were freely available and, consequently,
could not be used as rewards. J was not responsible for household
chores, so time-out from chores could not be used as a reward. J's
mother, of course, had wanted J to help at home but J had managed to do
otherwise. I found this upsetting until J's mother explained that they
lived in a dangerous neighborhood and that she could best protect J, by
rewarding J for staying at home and not in the streets.
I can't recall the details of the reward list that we negotiated but
like many we established with inner-city children it likely included
money (one point was worth a penny), candy, toys, going to a restaurant
for dinner, and the most valued activity: visiting grandparents.
With the behavioral contract in place, we again tutored J and she, as
usual, refused to reread a passage in which she had made an error.
This time, however, I did not mention the importance of learning but
remained silent. After several minutes she looked up and said, "How am
I going to earn those good things we talked about." I said, "Try this
again." With the contract in place, J worked hard to earn points and
thereby improved her reading.
I had intended to show J's mother how she could easily expand the
reward system to motivate her daughter's doing well in school and
accepting responsibilities at home. Sadly, we never met again. Some
years later I learned that J had become pregnant at the age of 13.
Over the years we managed to tutor several handfuls of children.
Almost all the students worked hard and progressed provided they were
paid for learning. The weakest link in the system was not the children,
but parents who would violate the contract by not paying.
We had hoped, of course, to achieve much more. When I speak with
others who work with inner-city children I am often told "keep on
trying. If you influence just one child for the better consider it a
big win!" Such low expectations may protect one's ego but they don't
help educate children. I believe that most of the children failing in
our inner-city, public schools do so because they are insufficiently
motivated. When learning becomes work these children go on strike.
Spacious classrooms will not make these students work harder nor will
longer school days or school years nor more well-credentialed, expert
The single change that would make the largest difference in urban
education is to adapt the reward system we used with J, for use with
entire public schools that have many students like J. For example,
children could be tested daily, in two learning areas, with their scores
determining level of reward.
Over the years, I have proposed establishing behavioral contracts to pay
inner-city children for learning. It is not a popular idea.
I have been told that pay will not enhance learning but there is a large
literature, see Stephen Flora's The Power of Reinforcement (2004), that
indicates that contracting with children produces learning.
I have been told that pay will undermine intrinsic interest. Yes, social
psychologists have found evidence for this, particularly when children
are promised and given rewards merely for engaging in a task regardless
of the quantity or quality of the work. When children, however, are
promised and receive rewards for superior work important capabilities
such as reading, doing math, and writing well can be acquired.
Capabilities are not readily lost once pay is terminated. Moreover, such
capabilities will allow children to earn rewards in the world beyond
I have been told that paying children for learning is bribery. Bribery,
however, involves a powerful person inducing another to behave in ways
that violate the latter's self-interest. Paying children to learn is
not bribery when children will want meaningful, well-paying work as
I have been told that children should learn without pay. At one time,
of course, the vast majority of children learned without obvious
extrinsic rewards when learning was supported in other ways. These
supports included having a loving family or neighbors who enjoyed
learning, who bestowed personal admiration for learning, who tutored
children to enhance learning, or who were successful by virtue of
learning. Today, more children enter our public schools with less of
these precious resources.
By the way, many people who deplore paying children for learning are
quite proud to talk of their children winning college scholarships or
graduate or professional-school fellowships. When I note that they are
bragging about their children being paid for learning, they respond
that these honors were based on merit. But what determined that merit?
Substantial portions of meritorious behavior are determined by social
conditions that are not available to inner-city children.
I have been told that children should learn for the love of learning.
This, of course, is essentially what J's principal told me. Maimonides,
in proposing his own pay-for-learning system, faced a similar
challenge. He was told that children should study Torah because it is
the word of God whom they should love. In turn he asked, how are the
many adults who obey Scripture because of the promise of reward unlike
children who read because of figs? To be sure Maimonides deplored the
use of rewards to motivate learning but he saw no other way of bringing
children or non-believers to study Torah.
I have been told that pay for learning will foster materialism. The
amount of money to effectively motivate learning, however, will not be
large. For example, one dollar daily per eighth grader may be
sufficient. Moreover, money can motivate learning non-materialistic
lessons concerned with, for example, friendship, charity, or the
rewards intrinsic to a contemplative life.
I have been told that many children will spend their earnings on drugs
or that children will be "shaken down." Children who experiment with
drugs, however, will discover that drugs interfere with learning and
reduce earnings. These reductions ought to deter many such students
from continued experimentation. But the lure of drugs or other rewards
will tempt some students to access money through guile, theft, or
extortion. Many of the social inventions that help adults such as
direct bank deposits can help children. Furthermore, we should
recognize that realistic learning objectives will permit the vast
majority of children to legitimately earn rewards. Nevertheless, these
are difficult problems which are neither unique to inner-city schools
nor have stopped adults from being paid for their labor!
Pay for learning is not just for under-motivated, inner-city children.
For example, our son, Noah, attended a Jewish day school. The school
building is new and spacious, the staff is competent, the vast majority
of parents are at least from the middle-class, and there are no more
than 18 children assigned to a teacher.
My wife and I had many times told Noah that we consider his learning
Hebrew important. We read prayers in Hebrew and I am always happy to
speak with Noah in Hebrew. Nevertheless, we were informed, several
springs ago, that Noah had trouble reading Hebrew. We then had a serious
talk with him about how he would have to read Hebrew for fifteen minutes
daily, during the summer, to improve his reading.
Summer came but Noah repeatedly put off the reading sessions. When one
was scheduled he read slowly, responded poorly to constructive feedback,
and just about went on strike as had J! So, we tried pay for learning.
I counted the number of words Noah read correctly and the number of
errors while he read Torah for fifteen minutes daily. I also corrected
errors. When Noah read 35 words correctly per minute with less than one
error per minute I agreed to pay for one-half of something Noah very
much wanted--a computer.
The first sessions under the contract were painful. Noah read only
about ten words correctly per minute with about two errors per minute.
He angrily noted that it had taken me 46 years to read 35 words
per minute and that, therefore, the goal was unreasonable. When he
cried and refused to read I simply kept the watch running. His
complaining to my wife only resulted in his being told that he was
wasting time. Gradually the emotional behavior subsided and his
reading improved. He would then often ask to read twice a day. Within
12 sessions he was reading 20 words per minute. Within 20 sessions--a
total of five hours--he had achieved the goal he had previously thought
Not surprisingly, many students at Noah's school grudgingly learn
Hebrew. I asked Noah's teacher about his attitude toward Hebrew. She
said that she had made an "arrangement." Although I was relieved that
she had not said "I consider it a big win whenever I can teach one
child Hebrew," I was afraid to ask about the "arrangement." Several
weeks later, I approached the same teacher and described pay for
learning. She initially was expressionless. When I mentioned that
Maimonides had used it for teaching Hebrew and Judaica, a small smile
appeared. When I next asked if she would use the approach if it were
approved by the principal and the school board, she smiled broadly. I,
of course, don't know if she smiled because she thought I was "crazy"
or she thought about the delight of teaching highly motivated students,
but certainly it was not because she was already using pay for
The idea of paying students for learning is at least 700 years old and
its effectiveness is now backed-up by substantial research.
Psychologists and other professionals regularly and effectively use
behavioral contracting to enhance the learning of under-motivated,
affluent children. With a behavioral contract in place, these children
come to work in school not so much to earn money but to enjoy special
activities with their parents.
But what about under-motivated, economically and often socially
impoverished children? Although other improvements can be made in our
public schools, I doubt that there is another, single, practicable
approach that could more enhance the quality of education. In its
simplest terms pay for learning promotes relations between work and
reward characteristic of responsible adult life. This work, unlike
much adult work, will result in inner-city children acquiring new
capabilities, values, and perspectives. If we do not want to implement
pay for learning for the sake of these children, then let us implement
it, with our tax dollars, for the sake of our nation.