The Problem with Rewards & Praise

I don’t give rewards. There are no shiny stickers on my students’ work, no stars next to their names, no charts with smiley faces and the only shiny pencils they get from me say “Happy Birthday!”.

As a child, I had absolutely no problem with rewards – I remember that they begot a silly sort of fun feeling, and also a sense that someone else thought I was doing a good job. Quite truthfully, the approval felt good. Except when I didn’t put much effort into something that was easy for me – then they were just stickers. Pretty, colorful, fun, yes, but stickers nonetheless. And I felt like a fraud, like I couldn’t tell them that I hadn’t worked as hard as they seemed to think I had. I was one of those “pleasers” and it was always about what someone else thought of my work, or how well my teacher thought I’d practiced the piano that week.

But every now and then (though truthfully not very often) a teacher or adult would ask me what I thought of my own work. Being used to teacher-referencing my judgment (if my teacher gave me a sticker, I could say I’d done a good job) I was clueless when someone asked me for my own opinion first. I hadn’t learned to reflect.

As a teacher, right from the start, rewards felt cheap. First of all, it was hard to decide what to reward – performance, or growth – or both? Then there was the idea of all that hard work being validated… by a sticker? Cheap, cheap, cheap! Then there was the idea of the smiley faces on the chart – too much to keep track of! I fell into what felt natural – giving kids comments on their work.

What kinds of comments are helpful? This was the topic of a lively and thought-provoking #elemchat discussion yesterday: From Praise to Feedback: How and Why? Praise is one of those terms that are difficult to define. Discerning the difference between praise, positive feedback, and encouragement was a bit of a challenge. #elemchat team member Joan Young (@flourishingkids) helped us with this clarification: praise is the kind of comment that highlights the student’s qualities, whereas feedback targets process and work.

Feedback is helpful to students when it is descriptive, timely, helps the student understand the task goals, and what s/he can improve upon. As Dylan Williams explains, we want to give students feedback that makes them think, instead of feedback that makes them “feel” (praise). (thanks to @whatedsaid for the link)

What’s the problem with praise? It is judgmental, based on the teacher’s values. When you praise a child, you say “I think you’re great!” – the opposite of which is: (you fill in the blanks). Praise-dependent and reward-dependent children are less likely to take risks and challenge themselves because they are either afraid of failure (afraid of losing your approval) or because there is nothing in it for them. Beyond academics, praise-dependent, reward-dependent children are less likely to take a stand against injustice because either there is nothing in it for them (reward) or they are afraid of losing that external approval of others.  (Barbara Coloroso on bullying).

We want to help students develop into caring, compassionate people who will think for themselves and do the right thing. Children need feedback, encouragement and deep caring. Not stickers, smiley faces and shiny pencils.

Respect – Letting Them Lead the Way

At the beginning of the school year, we set classroom rules, and expectations. We will listen to each other, validate other people’s opinions and we will agree to disagree respectfully. The big word we emphasize? Respect.

As a teacher it is my responsibility to model these guidelines – as thoroughly as possible. To me, this means more than remembering to say “please”, “thank you”, or “I respectfully disagree with…”. It’s more than hearing a child out, responding with a “That’s very interesting, Johnny” –  before moving the conversation forward.

To respect your students is not just to give them a smile and lip service. It’s taking that step to relinquishing control of the classroom, and trusting your students to make decisions that will work for them. It’s letting them make the rules.

Respecting your students is respecting their ideas. It means taking a chance and stepping away from planned curricula to explore an alternative route – just because a student asked a question. It means validating that question by encouraging the student to pursue an answer – even if it means veering off course from the route you had initially charted.

Why is this so difficult to achieve? Because content-laden standards and benchmarks (focusing on knowledge rather than process), scripted curricula, testing and grading, or even our own tendency to plan and control can get in the way.

If we let them.

Start at the Beginning

I owe this post to my dear friend and phenomenal educator, #elemchat co-conspirator, Greta Sandler. Greta’s an outstanding, passion-driven educator, the ideas and strategies she shares make her an exceptional resource. Her kindness, generosity, her consistently positive and supportive nature have made her much more than a treasured PLN gem, she is a true friend. As a great friend and colleague, Greta has been encouraging me to blog more often so Greta, this one’s for you!

Every year I start the school year with ice breaker activities designed to get to know the students and to begin to create a community of learners where everyone feels safe and respected. Typically, I read aloud “On Wings of Love”, a child’s version of the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child. We read the book, and then discuss the fact that with each right comes a responsibility and discuss what that responsibility might be. We then move on to creating our own classroom rights and responsibilities.

This year, I decided to take things one step further and ask the students to discuss, in detail, what these big ideas look like, in practice. We’ve taken the time to really get to know each other and to truly define what our community of learners will look like.

I began the school year by reading First Day Jitters (J. Danneberg), a story about Sarah Hartwell, who is reluctant to go to school. Throughout the book, Mr. Hartwell must practically drag Sarah out of bed, to breakfast, and to school as she expresses some of the fears she has about starting a new school. The twist comes at the end of the book, when the readers discover that Sarah is in fact a teacher in a new school. The conversation sparked by this book was incredible. Apart from the fact that the students were surprised that teachers get first day jitters too, students immediately began to open up and share some of the other things that make them nervous. We have several new students this year, and yet the group was very forthcoming and willing to share something as private and personal as fears. I could feel the jitters evaporate as they talked and recognized themselves in each other.

Another activity we did entitled “How would you like to learn it?” (from Strategies for Differentiating Instruction by Julia L. Roberts and Tracy F. Inman) involved putting up four large pieces of chart paper around the room. The papers were labeled 1 (novice/beginner) to 4 (expert/proficient). I asked the students to consider their mastery levels with respect to, say, playing tennis, and to go to the corresponding chart. They were then to discuss what they would need to improve their tennis. Students at the 1-novice chart wrote things like “learning the rules” whereas students at the 4-expert chart had suggestions such as watching footage of themselves as they played to improve technique. Then, I asked them to consider their mastery level with respect to baking a cake, playing an instrument, bargain shopping, hair dressing, etc… and each time, there was laughter as the students moved from being a 4-expert to a 1-novice, or somewhere in between. When we debriefed after the activity, the conversation was extraordinary. The students really started to show an understanding that different people have different needs.

Another activity, “Graphing Me”, (from Leading and Managing a Differentiated Classroom by Tomlinson & Imbeau) was to have students create a visual bar graph of themselves in various areas (template here). Students considered how proficient they are with respect to areas such as reading, writing, math, but also sports, being a friend, etc… and colored the graph accordingly. Without putting names on the graphs, we put up the graphs and then, students as a whole group, made observations:

  • “Nobody’s graph is the same.”
  • “Nobody is perfect at everything, or “bad” at everything.”
  • Nobody drew a straight line across and said they were the same at everything.

Based on this, the following activity, inspired by extraordinary educator Edna Sackson, involved developing our Essential Agreements. In small groups, students considered the question: If this class is going to work for all of us, what will it look like? It was important that students work in small groups in order to ensure that all voices be heard. When we met back again as a whole group, all the ideas were combined into a single text, used to create a Wordle.


Students studied the wordle looking for ideas that seemed to be important to everyone. From this, they generated our Essential Agreements:

Our Essential Agreements
In this class…

  • we will learn many new things
  • we will work with everyone and help everyone
  • everyone works hard
  • we respect each other and be polite to one another
  • everyone gets small group and individual help when they need it
  • we ask for help when we need it
  • everyone is respectful, friendly and helpful
  • we put our “game face” on and give a friendly smile to everyone
  • we respect others’ work and their learning

Taking things one step further, students then used this template to come up with specific systems that they felt would support our Essential Agreements. This is the extra step that I haven’t taken in the past, the results of which were fantastic. For each critical element in our classroom, they came up with “the teacher will…” and “the students will…” statements to decide exactly how our classroom would function. Students decided, for example, that if students needed to work with the teacher in small groups, that it would help others if: students could be grouped with other students with similar needs (their words, not mine!); other groups be given written instructions to refer to in order to avoid having to interrupt someone else’ “teacher time”; and, if they got really stuck, rather than interrupt the teacher, they could write their name on the board and work on a different, anchor activity while they wait, as a way of showing respect for the learning of those who are sitting with the teacher.

I truly believe that the level of commitment given to building a constructive community of learners will, hopefully, pay off throughout the year. Other activities have included inventories such as this Interest Inventory, sharing “mathographies” and memories of learning to read as connections to Thank You Mr. Falker (Patricia Polacco), identifying their Inner Critic and Inner Coach, writing a letter to their Inner Critic indicating that they will no longer be held back nor be afraid to express themselves!

It’s been a wonderful first week of a year-long journey.  Admittedly, I don’t yet know which students know their basic facts, but I can tell you which ones love soccer. I can’t yet say who can write a topic sentence but I can tell you who wants to know everything there is to know about outer space. I can’t yet tell for sure who needs help with reading comprehension, but I can tell you about the students who already feel the pressure to achieve from their parents.

Though we haven’t even begun the “academics” yet, I hope to be able to harvest all year long, the fruit of what we’ve sown this week. The rest, as they say, is yet to come.

Test failure

I owe this blog post to fellow #elemchat moderator/educator extraordinaire Pernille Ripp, whose blog is one I never miss. She is one of those gifted writers who magically and beautifully puts into words ideas that I often share, though her version is usually much more eloquent than mine. Her blog posts never fail to provide food for thought, and I come away from her blog with a feeling of inspiration and with every read, a slightly clearer vision/philosophy of education.

One of the areas where I believe Pernille and I definitely see eye-to-eye is that of testing and grades. A recent post of hers inspired the following comment (sorry about the long comment, Pernille!) which I thought I’d also share here. See, that’s the kind of educator Pernille is – one who inspires me to act, and to reflect on how to be a better teacher. So, thank you, Pernille, and, for better or worse, here are a few thoughts about testing.

I have the luxury of working in an environment where numerical grades are not used, and I am able to limit the number of tests and quizzes to a bare minimum. Students and teachers use rubrics and – (get ready for this) – ongoing dialogue – conversations (what a concept!) to discuss progress and growth with students. That said, every year, twice a year, standardized tests waltz in and upset this equilibrium. We do 1 writing test (ERB) and 1 Reading/Writing/Math test (Terra Nova).

Standardized tests have always perplexed me. Particularly in a setting like ours, where more that 70% of our students are not American… When students are given a writing prompt asking them to describe a visit to a pet shelter – and most of them have never even seen the inside of a pet shelter, there is little to do but smile weakly and say “Do your best – your results will not change what I already know about your abilities” (though, to be frank, it can be quite amusing to read stories about pet shelters housing llamas, chickens and venomous snakes!). I tell them that it is our school program that is being evaluated first and foremost, and I do what I can to make the day as fun and lighthearted as possible – we play silly games to silly music during breaks, all the while my heart is silently apologizing to them over and over for the ordeal I am putting them through. And, because they are fantastic kids, better people than most, they put their game face on and give it their honest best. Standardized test time is the only time of the year when I feel like a fraud, when my actions run counter current to my philosophy. It is the only time when I cannot be completely genuine with my students, and tell them how I really feel.

This year, I am toying with the idea of reading aloud a book I only recently discovered (don’t know how it escaped my attention) called The Report Card, by Andrew Clements. This is a book that tells the story of a gifted student, Nora, who exposes some of the myriad shortcomings and negative effects of tests by purposefully doing poorly and sending the adults – parents, teachers, administrators and counselors all a-tizzy. It is only when they stop looking at the data, and begin a true conversation with Nora that they really discover what an extraordinary child she is.

It’s time to drop the charade. If schools are to prepare kids for real life, it’s time we stop subjecting our students to contrived measures that may or may not be commensurate with what they’ve learned, may or may not be formulated in ways that allow students to express themselves in modes that suit their learning and expressive styles, and certainly will not tell me, as a teacher, anything I don’t already know about how best to help each child move forward. Like the librarian in The Report Card, it’s time to be honest with myself and the students about how I feel about the tests they are required to take, and help them, like Nora, make the best of it and get on with the “real” stuff.

21st Century Wake Up Call

I recently had the privilege of attending the ASCD conference in Boston. It was, by far, the greatest conference I’d ever attended. The calibre of the speakers was phenomenal.

The first workshop I attended was facilitated by the incomparable Heidi Hayes Jacobs. The title of the session was 21st Century Essential Curriculum. Anyone who has ever attended a session with Heidi Hayes Jacobs knows that she has a unique, gripping style. One which, personally, I found absolutely mesmerizing.

Heidi Hayes Jacobs, known for her work on Curriculum Mapping, executive director of the Curriculum Mapping Institute (if you have not yet become a member of the Curriculum 21 Ning, I strongly urge you to put it on your list, waaayy up high on the priority list) is someone who does not only encourage 21st Century teaching/learning, she demands it.  “10% of the 21st Century is over. We aren’t preparing for the 21st century, we are in it. Children are processing information differently.” She encouraged demanded that educators keep current by means such as developing a PLN. When we consider what we want students to know and be able to do? “We are restricted by what WE know and are able to do.” Jacobs asked the audience to consider that the rate of change is such that students who are graduating today have a very different skill set than those who are currently in PreKindergarten. This struck a personal chord with me. Essentially, when I think about what my preschool son will be like in the future, I cannot look at this year’s graduates as an indicator. We truly need to be preparing students for a world that does not yet exist – and yet, as Jacobs pointed out, more often than not, schools are preparing kids for the 1990’s. Are our kids time traveling every time they come to school?

Furthermore, educators need to rethink the teaching and learning dynamics. As Jacobs pointed out, new kinds of students require new kinds of classrooms – as such, we must redefine the roles each of us plays. First and foremost, students must own their learning. When we look at the standards and benchmarks, the word “independently” should be the adverb at the end of each standard. Students need to become literate in new ways. New literacies support traditional literacies. They are:

  • Digital literacy (actively and strategically selecting tools for learning)
  • Media literacy (both the production of, and response to, media)
  • Global literacy (linking places, and people, and studying topics with respect to how they relate to the world)

Not only do we need to rethink what we teach, but also how we teach, and how we assess. Jacobs provided a plethora of options, including, but not limited to, asking science students to write a grant proposal, or create an app rather than the traditional science report. The Curriculum 21 Ning has a resource section that is positively bursting with resources. Furthermore, if you have not yet read Curriculum 21, it is a must-read!

Though much more was said and it is impossible to do justice to such an educator as Heidi Hayes Jacobs in a single blog post,  she did ask attendees to reflect on the content of the following video

The Finland Phenomenon

What’s most powerful for me in this video is the message that, essentially, we need to quit administrating education to students. Education is no longer something we do to kids. We need to set up environments where the teacher can get out of the way of learning, become a facilitator and coach students as they learn the skills, ideas, and adopt the dispositions that will serve them later on.

I think part of what captivates me in Heidi Hayes Jacobs is the fact that there are no more excuses. It is no longer acceptable for teachers to continue to teach “the way they’ve always done it”, or to avoid making changes simply because they do not know how to do something. Just as we expect that students be active, lifelong learners, we educators, must be ourselves, active, lifelong learners.

For those of you who are as of yet unfamiliar with Heidi Hayes Jacobs, here is a treat!

TEDxNYED – Heidi Hayes Jacobs