Return to Education Newsletter main page!
Dodging the Pitfalls of Incentives
By Becca Rosenthal, ISJL Education Fellow
A committed teacher may ask the question, “Shouldn’t our students want to learn so much that we don’t need to reward them?” While the optimal situation laid out by our sages expects our students respect us more than our parents and treat every word we tell them as gold, [i] it is more fantasy than a reality. Furthermore, incentives play a part in virtually every religion, Judaism included. Reasons are given for our obligation to fulfill מִצְווֹת (commandments, mitz’vot) include the reward for the actions, whether it means repairing the world or ensuring our place in the world to come.
Interestingly enough, Maimonides acknowledges the importance of the reward and how we should look at it. When teaching our students, don’t want the sole reason that they are doing the lesson to be for the reward. But, as our learned sage points out, sometimes this is the way in which all “infantile” Jews need to be persuaded to study and observe, not just children, but those who are just beginning their education in life. Maimonides doesn’t believe that we should be offering “other” reasons for study and observance in perpetuity. In fact, he says that the reason we should come to observe the commandments solely due to a reverence for Adonai, not for the reward that Adonai will bestow upon them.
However, we’ve got to start somewhere, and Maimonides acknowledges this. We should enact incentives that will not undermine the learning itself, but build respect and inspiration for Jewish life that will become something unto itself. In other words, we start with rewards, but we developmentally adjust them for our learners. After a certain amount of time, it should become second nature that our students show up on time to all our classes (with the caveat that their parents are also invested and dropping them off on time), thereby we can move on to more advanced subjects (and more advanced rewards to spur that on further).
We, therefore, shouldn’t look at incentives as a burden or something unnecessary, but a tool to greater learning. Just remember, our tradition says that just as a small branch is used to light a large bough, so too can a small student sharpen a larger population’s learning. We just have to start small, and we will build toward exciting and engaging learning.
[i] Maimonides illuminates the seriousness of learning, including the respect due to both the instructor and the subject matter. To investigate more on how Maimonides lays out the relationship between teachers and students, see his Mishneh Torah: Hilchot Talmud Torah.