Thursday 13 September 2012

Praise and Rewards: Overrated?

How often do you praise your students? I bet most of you would answer "not enough", because we're constantly being told that we should be praising and critiquing in the ratio of 4:1 (which I'm sure is completely arbitrary. Where are the calculations?) and that we should be constantly reinforcing good behaviours and boosting confidence.

But really? Really? The hype over praise has reached such a ridiculous level that we're now told we have to seek out things that students are doing and praise them for it. It's called "catching them being good" but it should really be called "searching frantically for something they do which isn't completely moronic". 

I sound quite bitter don't I? I'll dial it back a bit. I'm no educational expert, and I'm by no means an experienced teacher, but I still feel quite strongly that the advice we have been given about praise, and more so about rewards, is bad.

I have a confession to make. My name is Emma and I'm an over-praiser. I will meet every child's contribution to the lesson with a "well done!" or an "excellent answer!" or, more often than not, "that's not correct, but I'm impressed by your creativity!" I actually found myself praising a student for remembering to draw his margin with a pencil today. And this was a middle ability set. I hate the fact that I do this. It's a habit I got into during my training year, before I was confident enough to challenge any of the advice I'd been given. I'd spend hours trying my hardest to think of three "stars" for little Johnny whilst trying to cram all of my hundreds of "wishes" into one line. Result: Johnny walks away thinking he's done a good piece of work. It doesn't matter to him that one of the stars was "You wrote the date! (Smiley face)"

My revelation came during my NQT year. I was talking to a particularly inspiring teacher, and he admitted to me that he never gave out "points" for good work, good behaviour etc. He said he had never even logged into the online points system. I felt really smug then, because I had painstakingly given out every single point in my account every week since the start of the year. My smugness didn't last long, however. He told me he didn't really agree with the points system. He said that students shouldn't be behaving well and doing good work so that they can earn points, they should be doing it for their own self-satisfaction. This really struck a chord with me.

Giving out points encourages extrinsic motivation, where people act to gain external rewards and avoid external punishments. Intrinsic motivation is where people act for their own satisfaction. Studies have shown that using extrinsic motivation to get people to do a certain activity can lead people to see that activity as "work", a job for which they are paid. I have heard that it is common advice to tell parents not to reward their children for reading, because if they do, they will stop reading just for the fun of it. 

We all know that Pavlov et al have shown that using praise and rewards allows us to control behaviour, but I personally would rather teach students who are in control of their own behaviour. There's something quite sad really about a dog who salivates when a bell sounds. Would you like to teach a bunch of robots who immediately start working the second you say "VIVO miles"? Are they the kind of people we want in society? There's no one around to reward adults for not dropping litter on the floor, not sticking chewing gum under cinema seats and wearing appropriate clothing in public (I'm talking to you, large blonde lady from the number 5 bus).

And when you throw praise and rewards around willy-nilly, you devalue it. I don't think any of my kids ever really experience the feeling of pride puffing up in your chest. I'm sure my comments wash over most of them, a lot of the time. I watched the teacher mentioned above teach an A level lesson the other day. He asked the class how they thought speed cameras worked. After some answers and some discussion, a boy contributed an answer that I thought was pretty good (embarrassingly, I didn't know the correct answer). The teacher, without saying anything to the boy, explained the boys answer to the rest of the class, rewording it a bit so they would all understand. He then finished by pausing for a second, and then simply saying "that's exactly how they work". He didn't add "well done", he didn't even smile. He just said that, in a slow, low voice. But even from where I was standing, the pride that boy was feeling was palpable.

I must admit, I stopped giving out my points a while ago, and since then I haven't noticed a single bit of difference in my classes' behaviour, effort or achievement. My next step is to stop being so generous with my praise. I'm thinking I might aim to give out one really good bit of praise per lesson. 

Think about yourself as a student. What bit of praise really affected you? What moment of pride do you still remember? For me, it's the time my year nine history teacher (also the head teacher) wrote that my end of year project is the best he had seen for as long as he could remember. And he gave me a pen (my schoolmates will remember how scarcely these pens were given out). Embarrassing admission of the week: I still have the pen. It's in my "special box". 

Am I on my own here or do you agree? Comment below!

Emma x x x 


  1. I had an art teacher once who said "Lovely" to everything. Including a squirrel I was drawing that looked something like a box with a tail. It was really irritating.
    I like the idea to save back praise so that the students actually feel proud of their work. It's along the same lines as saving back shouting so that it's really effective - but soo much more positive!

  2. Elizabeth the Awesome13 September 2012 at 21:02

    Totally agree! I do regularly praise kids though (only when genuine i.e. I'll spontaneously feel like doing it). I can't stand the "catching them being good" because it usually leads to praise for ridiculous rubbish that makes them think what they are doing is acceptable. Which contradicts that "has high expectations of all students" thing. I have, with a kiddie who was constantly yelling across the room, asked him how long he thought he could work silently for in one lesson (3mins!) and rewarded him when he did. I'm planning on steadily upping this throughout the year.

    I have found stuff like "this side of the room are all sitting quietly listening" or "these two are remembering to underline the date" to be remarkably effective at getting others to do the same, cheesy and ridiculous as they seem! They quickly do the same then burst to be chosen as the "good" ones next time it comes up!

    I have been enjoying experimenting with "hilarious" methods of praise and rewards (and shame and embarrassment) with my Year 12's and 13's. This involves metallic shiny star stickers on good homework, smiley face stamps on good classwork (eg has included a diagram without being asked! This makes me very happy!) and my order of "I'm a maths star!" wristbands off a primary school resource website has just arrived. On the flip side, chatty students in class get sent to "death row" (their name, not mine), an area in the room that is usually empty. Pupils with no homework get named and shamed as the naughty pupil of the class and greeted as such the next lesson, etc.

  3. A very convincing article! I am teaching with the help of urban night feast and sometimes don't kow how to reward my students properly.