Earlier this week I received an email asking for incentive ideas for a school wide fact fluency focus:

Hi Graham,
I need some insight about math facts and incentive programs. I follow your site and have read Not Your Mom’s Flashcards:Conceptual Understanding of Multiplication and watched From Memory to Memorization: There is a Difference. I know facts are about being efficient, accurate and flexible. With that said our school would like to start an incentive program to encourage students to learn their facts. Ex. In the hallway, picture of student and medals earned and a quarterly bingo math party with snacks and prizes. I am all about balance but… I want to make sure we do what is right for all students. My principal would like an incentive program for facts and I want to lead us in the right direction.

If you search the Internet, there are tons of incentives for fact fluency and the Multiplication Sundae is a big seller.  But the problem I have with the sundae is that some kids never even earn the bowl, let alone the ice cream. And the cherry? It doesn’t stand a chance!

In the same week, I was reminded why incentives for fact fluency crush my soul.  I was at my daughter’s award ceremony, she’s a 3rd grade student. During the presentation they awarded all students that had mastered their multiplication facts with an award. There were a handful of students from her class that earned this award. As a dad, I was proud because my daughter received the award but I know she learned her facts the right way.  But what absolutely crushed me is the other 17 students in her class that didn’t receive the award and how they now believe they’re not good at math.  So I’ll ask the question…Is the award worth it?

I really appreciate the email and all the work we do as teachers to motivate our students but now I can’t escape 2 questions:

  1. Is there an incentive idea/program that addresses equity? An idea where EVERY student can be successful?
  2. What role (if any) should incentives play in our schools?

I like to think if we can’t address question #1 with “yes” then question #2 is answered for us…incentives don’t belong.