I've brought up the concern at conferences before: the special education students who are the best at earning points in programs like Class Dojo. We've taught them to do their work to get the things they want and they're very good at it. To the point where many of them won't do their work without the reward and meltdown if they don't get it. I've had a front row seat to that show this summer. The incentive system clearly does its job. But, for me it always comes back to the same questions: "What are you teaching? What are they learning?"
Now I want to add another question: "What do they need?"
When we use a reward system we are clearly teaching students that they should not value the academic task. After all, we obviously don't. It's only one factor that goes into getting their token (complete task and behave usually) and it takes multiple tokens to get anything they care about. They are learning to comply with teacher-directed activities and to engage in pro-social behaviors. Adding the last question makes it clear what the reward system is really driving at: what students need. Students need to care about the work they are doing. They wouldn't engage in the reward activities (they wouldn't be rewards) if students didn't care about them. If we want to get rid of reward systems we need to make the work the thing students care about.
For some students, making the work the thing the student cares about is as simple as incorporating the students interest into the instructional activity. You're talking about auditoriums? Okay, let's find the letters in auditorium to spell it into google and get a picture. Write three sentences and we can print it out. Let's count how many doors there are between here and the school auditorium.... (This idea make sense to you? Want to run with it? I recommend Paula Kluth's book Just Give Him The Whale!)
It's a strategy that has worked remarkably well. Some content is harder to fit in (science, social studies) but we find other ways to make it fun and more often than not those activities become the things that students are talking about. (Think I'm crazy? Learn from the Pirate Master himself, Dave Burgess in his book Teach Like A Pirate)
For some students, it's not as easy to see what they need. Because interest and perseveration are not always the same thing. Because we don't always have enough context to tell what is self-calming speech, what is anxiety-speech and what is social speech (assuming we can understand the speech at all.) Because the same tools that a students enjoys can be exactly the wrong tools for learning for a student who has trouble context-switching.
The fact remains that teacher-directed instruction is still important. Teaching pro-social behavior (and reducing or eliminating dangerous behavior) is also important. There will always be cases where we can't see they pay-off for completing something (because it's too many steps down the line) and we need to give ourselves a little extra reward. I know I do it for myself. (How do you think this blog post got published?) Rewards aren't evil. But students need to know that learning is important, fun even, and not just because you can get the computer after you fill your token board for doing it.