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.

One thought on “The Problem with Rewards & Praise

  1. Pingback: Asking questions – beyond academics | Inquire Within

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *