In 1936, the psychologist Samuel Rosenzweig coined the phrase ‘the Dodo bird verdict’. It is a way of thinking that is prevalent in current educational thinking – but what effect does it have on learners? Does giving everyone a prize really motivate and inform?
The phrase derives from Lewis Carroll’s classic book Alice in Wonderland at a point in the story when some of the characters have decided to run around the lake to dry off. The Dodo is asked to choose the winner of the race. After some consideration, he answers, ‘Everybody has won and all must have prizes’. Unfortunately, in order not to offend anyone and to make everyone feel good about themselves, he failed to consider the different distances that each character had covered or the length of time for which each character had run.
It is palpably unfair to reward in such a random way – in a race, the fittest, fastest and best trained person wins. Obviously, only one person can win. Yet our thinking is so steeped in the attitude that everyone must be rewarded in order to boost their self-esteem, that we perpetuate it day after day in schools, homes and sometimes even in the workplace.
The first point to make here is that if everyone gets a prize, then the prize isn’t actually worth having. How impressed would Usain Bolt be if everyone who took part in the 100m and 200m races in the Olympics got a gold medal? Or if you got a gold medal just for turning up for a race? If prizes are on offer, then they must be genuine and only the best should win them.
Offering prizes to everyone to boost self-esteem is also very patronising. There is overwhelming evidence that self-esteem is exactly that – a product of ‘self’ thinking, not as a direct result of reward. How can the self-esteem of a person possibly be nurtured by telling them that they are as good at something as everyone else, even when they know that it’s not true? As teachers and parents, we can foster an environment in which self-esteem flourishes, but we cannot actually create it or teach it to another person. It is also a variable and difficult to measure – think of situations in which your self-esteem is high, then of situations where it’s not. Not only is it a fluctuating entity, but our perceptions of ourselves are based on personal values – a pupil judged to have low self-esteem in the classroom might have very high self-esteem on the street outside of school.
And the most powerful argument against using prizes for all is that it simply doesn’t work. In my book Praise, Motivation and the Child I describe a very common scenario in which children were awarded with a Top Table invitation for good manners at lunchtime. The intention of the award was to encourage good behaviour and therefore improve it. Unfortunately, the children’s responses showed that it failed dismally. It had no meaning to the children who always behaved well, apart from annoy them that children with bad manners only had to remember once in order to get the treat, whereas they remembered their manners every day but still only got one reward. The children whose behaviour was consistently poor and who thought nothing of throwing food, were highly amused that they could get a prize for just one example of restraint. They were also very clear that it made no long term difference to their behaviour. So what was achieved?
This might seem a minor example, but actually it goes to the very root of what we are trying to achieve in current education. We want to support learning which is active, enjoyable and which helps children to analyse, reason and think for themselves. We want to raise children who are creative and responsive. And yet our thinking is still weighted down by an outmoded belief that we can shape a person with daily bribes. The two ways of thinking (stemming from constructivist and behaviourist thinking) contradict each other.
Isn’t it time to review our praise and reward systems and bring what we do up to date?