The Tic Tac Awards: Why prizes don’t matter

Written by: Samuel Elliott | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Prizes do not matter and will not create the impact you want in your classroom. That is why teacher Samuel Elliott created The Tic Tac Awards – and even he was amazed at how much of a hit they were...


It was the last day of term, my year 8s had been really good, and so I decided to treat them. However, I had been telling them every lesson that Mr Elliott doesn’t give prizes because the journey is the reward, as every school child knows – if they didn’t know before, they sure do now.

In rewarding my pupils, I had two considerations in mind: how can I treat them while not compromising on my “no prizes” philosophy? The answer came to me as in a vision.

It was 7:30am and I was sat slouching at my computer when it came to me: each child who had done well would earn the prize of one solitary Tic Tac. Not a box, not a handful, but merely a single pellet of artificially sweetened “reward”. No matter what they thought of the prize itself, I could console myself that no way could this leave a bitter taste in their mouths.


Prizes do not matter

Before getting into the Tic Tac Awards, you should understand that no, prizes do not matter. In fact, they are harmful to learning. There are a couple of reasons for this and both of them are predicated upon the “predictably irrational” nature of human beings.

The sociologist Dr Dan Ariely conducted a study at MIT. The task involved clicking circles on a screen. One group was paid five dollars, another received 50 cents, and a final group laboured for free. The results? The group working for free was most efficient, and the group working for 50 cents performed worst. The five-dollar group was only marginally behind the work-for-free group (by nine circles) (Ariely, 2010).

Why is this? It is to do with a contrast between market values and social norms. When you pay somebody to perform a service, you prime them to think in terms of wealth, reward and extrinsic motivation. They will only work as hard as they value the reward.

If you offer one of those little party bags of Haribo to pupils for writing an essay on the Cuban Missile Crisis, they will produce something of similar value. You will have hurriedly scrawled just-so stories: “JFK was a hero and Khrushchev was a big fat meanie-pie, with his beady little eyes and his stubby hands like packets of Richmond sausages. All the better to nuke you with, darling.” Can I have my Haribos now?”


Intrinsic motivation

When pupils work without prizes, they do so in accordance with social norms; in other words, to please their teacher. Like the participants in the study, pupils will work harder, think more deeply, and not be distracted by the impending prospect of adorning themselves with little gummy rings.

They will work hard because the work itself has become the reward – this is what is called “intrinsic motivation” (Crehan, 2016). Prizes are ineffectual because they turn your relationship into a transactional one.

The second reason they always fail is because of inflation. Where teachers give prizes, pupils value the prizes less, and thus they become prize-resistant (and possibly insulin-resistant, as well). For that next Cold War essay, you will have to give them two little Haribo baggies for something legible, three for one that has an actual fact in it, and for any of those higher-level skills – well, the going rate for those is somewhere in the value region of Maltesers Celebrations. Thanks a lot, Miss Milk Tray.


The Tic Tac Awards

It was while mulling all of this over in my head that I came up with the Tic Tac Awards.

The ceremony was quite simple. I had on my PowerPoint some animations. Eight names would appear and those pupils would receive their Tic Tacs.

I began the lesson by observing that they were very lucky, and that they were about to have in their possession one of the greatest prizes imaginable. I told them the prize was something I had spent my hard-earned money on. A picture of a Tic Tac box then flew into the PowerPoint.

There were rainbows, a spaceship embarked on some kind of interstellar mission, and a picture of a young Justin Bieber in the corner – animations are a wonderful thing.

The prize for “most thoughtful questions” in lesson went to Dan. He’d posed some corkers – such as whether urine could be purified for the slum-dwellers of Nairobi. I said: “Well done, Dan. You have excelled and set an example to the entire school. I’m very proud of you. I’m ringing your mum to say so. Now here ... is your prize.”

I took the Tic Tac box off the desk, presented it with an upturned palm like a bottle of vintage, and the pupils were genuinely excited. I rattled the box until a solitary Tic Tac pipped into his cupped hands. He grinned, thought it was hilarious, and went back to his seat holding it proudly aloft. Everybody cheered. Surprisingly, there wasn’t any jealousy in the room, either. Only good will.

I will never fully understand why kids love the Tic Tac Awards so much. Perhaps it is because I am using the absurd ceremony to foster social norms in the class. If I were to give prizes that had actual value, market values would intervene, and the pupils might just see me as a walking candy-dispenser.

I think the Tic Tac Awards was also a way of demonstrating my authority to the pupils. It showed them that I could create order and routine without taking myself too seriously. At one point, I had actually dispensed two Tic Tacs into the hand of Casey – “best at switching on the lights” – and I made her give the second one back to me.

Even in the absurd arena of Tic Tac distribution, my rules were non-negotiable, and this left an impression.

One final aspect of the Tic Tac Awards is that it resonates with what pupils actually find funny. They enjoy silly, pointless, mock-ceremonial events. The problem with many teachers is that they are too sensible. Every joke has to have some logical endpoint. Teachers laugh to please their bosses. They laugh to cement friendships. But remember, pupils only ever laugh because something is funny, and if you’re not funny, maybe it is because you are fixated upon the social value of humour, rather than its intrinsic value.

  • Samuel Elliott has been a classroom teacher since 2016, teaching in deprived areas. His new book ASBO Teacher: An irreverent guide to surviving in challenging classrooms (Crown House Publishing, 2021) is out now. Visit www.crownhouse.co.uk/publications/asbo-teacher


Further information & resources

  • Ariely: Predictably Irrational, Harper Perennial, 2010.
  • Crehan: Cleverlands, Unbound, 2016.


Comments
Name
 
Email
 
Comments
 

Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
 
Sign up SecEd Bulletin