Book It!, Program Design, and Aristotle

Among the many artifacts that I’ve recently encountered in the educational portfolios my Mom carefully kept was this letter:book it letter_LI

Book It! is a 34-year-old program with a very simple mission: encourage kids to read.  Since 1984 (according to Pizza Hut’s numbers) roughly 1 in 5 American kids have participated in the program.

Teachers or homeschool parents simply enroll their students in the program by the October start date each year.  There is no charge.  Teachers and parents then work with students to set monthly goals for reading.  When students reach this goal, they get a certificate that can be “cashed in” at a local Pizza Hut for a free personal pan pizza.  They have a strict policy against pizza parties in classrooms, instead emphasizing the individual nature of the award (how retro).

In 2017 Mental Floss published 12 Cheesy Facts about Pizza Hut’s Book It! Program.  If you’re looking for a fun and truly informative dive into some serious 80’s nostalgia, check it out.  But that’s not all…

I had been wondering if there had been any scholarly research on the outcomes of the program, and sure enough, the above-mentioned Mental Floss article pointed me to “Effects of extrinsic reinforcement for reading during childhood on reported reading habits of college students” (Psychological Record, 1999, by Flora, S. R., & Flora, D. B.) – here’s the PDF in case you’d like to check it out yourself.

From the abstract (emphasis mine):

Answers to direct questions about Book It! and parental pay for reading suggest that when a child is extrinsically reinforced for reading the child will increase the amount read, enjoyment of reading may increase, and if they do not yet know how to read fluently, the programs may help the child to learn to read. These results provide no support for the myth that extrinsic rewards for reading undermine intrinsic interest in reading. Rather, extrinsic rewards for reading set the conditions where intrinsic motivation for reading may develop. Any concerns that reinforcement programs for reading will decrease later reading behaviors are unfounded.

I was a voracious reader as a kid, and no doubt I would have read stacks of books without the fast-food incentive.  But it didn’t hurt, and in the process, I got in the habit of writing down lists of the books I read, which is a good practice.

There are a lot of lessons that I think education reformers and philanthropists can take from this program:

  1. It’s free and easy-to-understand.
  2. The program’s design does not take a stand on which kinds of books kids have to read.  The teacher newsletters offer ideas and suggestions, but these are purely voluntary.
  3. The program relies solely on the most local level of knowledge in terms of setting up the program’s metrics, i.e., parents and teachers.  These grown-ups frequently work with students themselves to set up their reading goals, taking interests and ability into account while also providing some gentle nudges towards more challenging books.
  4. Homeschoolers have been welcomed from the beginning of the program, and now students in online schools are welcome, too.  In other words, the program is flexible.
  5. Extrinsic motivation properly engaged can lead to the development of intrinsic motivation.  Incentives matter.
  6. It’s a privately-sponsored program.  It very clearly helps out Pizza Hut to bring in additional business through loss-leaders like personal pan pizzas.  And this is not a weakness – it keeps the program’s design and mission simple and laser-focused.

There is a lot of debate in education reform circles about intrinsic vs. extrinsic loci of control, motivation, and grit these days, and Book It! has certainly has its critics.

I’ll be coming back to those important issues in the future.  But Aristotle kinda sums up my POV, so I’ll let him take us out this morning (emphasis mine):

Again, of all the things that come to us by nature we first acquire the potentiality and later exhibit the activity (this is plain in the case of the senses; for it was not by often seeing or often hearing that we got these senses, but on the contrary we had them before we used them, and did not come to have them by using them); but the virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well. For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyre-players by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts. 

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