I read a very interesting book over the holidays called, ‘Punished By Rewards’ by a chap called Alfie Kohn. It pre-dates Carol Dwecke’s work on growth mindsets but feeds into the same dialogue on motivation. Basically approaches to managing behaviour which are influenced by behaviourist theories have too often been about control. Most school behaviour policies are driven by behaviourism and are essentially about control. It’s an ‘oh gosh, we have 315 children milling about- if we don’t ‘control’ the situation, we’ll end up with anarchy’ kind of approach to life. However it is entirely possible that, if we want ‘strong and motivated learners,’ we need learners with more self-determination than this kind of control sometimes allows for.
Also the problem with rewards & punishments is that they often do not lead to lasting change. The behaviour change lasts as long as the rewards and punishments last. Why- because rewards and punishments do not alter the attitudes and emotional commitments that underlie our behaviours…they only effect what we do while the reward or punishment lasts. They do not work to turn children into careful thinkers/ self-directed learners or help them to develop good values; in fact in this respect they can often be counter-productive. Why?
1.Rewards and praise can punish people. The recipient of the reward may feel pleasure in the short term but ultimately they feel controlled. Also some people can end up not getting the reward they hoped for or deserved which undermines their trust and resolve. It is impossible for a reward giver to know who/ judge who most deserves a reward.
2.Rewards and praise can rupture relationships: rewards are often preoccupied with individual performance rather than cooperation/ collaboration and the ways of working we associate with good learning.
3.Rewards and praise can rupture motivation. Rewards can not only have little impact on intrinsic motivation, they can undermine it. They will undermine it most when used to encourage children with the most intrinsically motivating tasks.
4.Rewards and praise can discourage risk taking—because the recipient becomes pre-occupied with getting the reward again and taking a risk might put the reward at risk..
5.Rewards and praise can lower the quality of performance—because pupils become pre-occupied with their performance as opposed to the learning.
This was tough to hear. However it did chime with everything we have been discovering about growth mindsets. In terms of a way forward- it has been difficult for us. Many of the systems schools have in place are long standing and embedded and many of our habits are bound up with how we were brought up and what feels a natural default position for us. We have discussed the research at length and begun to make a few tentative changes which I will share with you gradually over this term and which will be kept under constant review.
Significantly we want our pupils to become more autonomous and we have slightly re-modelled our approach to extrinsic rewards (these being the ones you are most likely to get to hear about). We want pupils taking control of their learning and how they feel about it. We have a particular focus on something called ‘learning powers’ which will help with this and all classes are gradually adopting an ‘Our marvellous mistakes’ board on which the class’s favourite mistakes can be displayed. We are also trying to provide feedback that demands more thinking from the pupils.
In terms of extrinsic rewards, we are no longer using raffle tickets, house points, stickers or gold awards. Oh my gosh I hear you exclaim, that doesn’t sound very tentative- but the trouble is once you start applying a principle it’s hard to find the compromise. Thus far, as promised by the experts, the children have hardly noticed: thus confirming our suspicion that these rewards were there more for us than the children themselves. We will however be reviewing how the children feel about all this intensively as the term progresses. It would be rather ironic to push for more pupil autonomy on all of this and then not ask their opinion.
We are focusing instead on providing them with carefully worded feedback. That sound very dry doesn’t it – it doesn’t stop us jumping about and getting excited about the children’s learning; it’s just that we are trying to consider the individual, not just dole out meaningless praise. Instead of our gold book assemblies, children volunteer to share learning that they feel pleased about. When they come to me with some work, I now try much harder to encourage them to articulate/ explain their learning themselves rather than them standing there and receiving my vain efforts at wisdom. They dictate what they want to write on a text home and sign it from themselves and if they want to share it in assembly as well, I make a note of their names for the next Wednesday. All this relies heavily on pupils becoming better at self- evaluation. Children are then far more likely to internalise the attitudes and the emotional commitments that underlie good behaviour than they are if the ‘thing’ is being foisted upon them.
There we go – another monologue- you do have my sympathy.