Dear Mr Cameron, you seem a little muddled

The report into the Trojan Horse affair in Birmingham schools has led to a predictable knee jerk response from the government about the teaching of British values. This instant, badly thought out reaction becomes policy from this September. So, Mr Cameron, what do you think we do in school all day? And while I’ve got your attention, could I just point out that your thinking on this is very muddled. You don’t seem to know your culture from your values.

As Russell Hobby points out when reflecting on the speed of this ‘initiative’, teachers may well be ‘quite sceptical when a politician makes a statement in response to a crisis. They’re never thought through, never debated, the crisis goes and a different one comes but the requirements on schools don’t end.’ The overwhelming response of most teachers to this may also be, ‘What’s new?’ because values are part of what we teach, by example, by discussion and throughout the curriculum, day in, day out. This was articulately pointed out by humanities teacher Tomislav Maric in his letter to the Guardian.

His letter also raises a more significant question, though. What are British values and who defines them? This is where I suspect that Mr Cameron loses the plot. He talks about ‘a belief in freedom, tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility, respecting and upholding the rule of law.’ So far, so good. But he then goes on to say that these things (presumably because they are enshrined in the Magna Carta,the nearest we’ve got to a national Constitution) are as British as ‘the Union flag, as football, as fish and chips.’ And don’t forget to add warm beer and cricket on the village green. You are so, so wrong, Mr Prime Minister. You don’t seem to know the difference between values and culture. And while we’re here, what exactly should we teach if, in September, Scotland votes for independence and the Union flag will overnight become the disUnion flag?

There’s also a worrying jingoistic undertone to all of this. Because what he actually describes are human values. Is he suggesting, as I think he is, that Britain is the originator of human values? Maybe he’s suggesting a ‘muscular’ return to the days of Empire when the dominant culture told everyone else what to think.

But the reality is that we live in a pluralist society. Every time a new culture enters our society, we absorb a little of it into our way of thinking – and thank goodness, in the case of what used to pass for British cuisine, that we do. Food and music aren’t defined as ‘fusion’ for nothing. But regardless of what we eat, what music we listen to, what we wear or how we speak, the values of honesty, integrity, respect, freedom,  and liberty bounded by personal and social  responsibility are human values. They underpin a whole range of cultures, not just the British version.

And in closing, just a thought about ‘teaching’ values. We teach facts. We transmit information. We cannot teach values. Like beliefs, they are a deeply personal interpretation of the facts we encounter. We process those facts through our own uniquely personal filter system, a product of our life’s experience to date. Teachers create a  context in which values can be discussed, questioned and pondered on. But we cannot teach another human being what to believe.

So until September when a new set of guidelines will arrive in our schools, we’ll just carry right on, doing what we do every day, modelling those very values that Mr Cameron et al want to claim as A Very British Affair.





The dunce’s hat styled for the 21st century

Just before the end of term, parents at a school in Bedforshire were sent a text by the Head, explaining that those children who had achieved their Accelerated Reading targets could have a mufti day. Everyone else had to wear uniform. It provoked the usual storm of pros and cons, from parents, the media and the general public. The parent of a child who had to wear uniform felt that her child was being singled out as a failure, while predictably the parent of a child who wore his own clothes thought it only right and proper that her child should be singled out as successful. I wonder how the latter parent would have felt had her child not achieved his targets?

The use of reward raises the same questions time and again, yet still schools persist in using bribery to try and make children learn. What is wrong with this? Several things. Perhaps the most significant is the message that it communicates – that reading isn’t fun, so you have to be bribed to do it, as if reading somehow equates to eating cold sprouts – it’s horrible, but it’s good for you and if you don’t do it, you’ll be sorry later. Is this really the view of reading that we want to communicate?

Secondly, those children who achieved their targets would almost certainly have achieved them anyway, and that is because of their motivation, or sheer enjoyment in reading. There is a false view that children are motivated by bribes – not many of them are when it comes to learning. But because many of these children achieved their targets, the teachers all assumed that it was in order to get the goodie; in this case, to wear their own clothes. Time for a reality check, teachers: you don’t control children’s motivation. They do. Bribes don’t work, you just think they do. They were going to do it anyway.

Thirdly, and more worryingly, some children might have made an extra effort in order to avoid the public humiliation of being a reading failure, not wanting to be demarcated by what they had to wear. But those children won’t have learnt much, because nobody really learns anything of value through fear of exposure as a failure.

And finally, there are those who were never going to achieve their targets and who knew that they would be public dunces for the day. How likely are they to read for pleasure throughout their lives? And what is the likelihood of them being teased, laughed at or even bullied? The implications last far beyond the mufti day.

So here’s my suggestion for helping teachers to understand how destructive discrimination and public humiliation are. Turn the tables on the teachers, and segregate them by a dress code which is dependent on their target achievement. If the school achieves its national targets this year, the Head can wear whatever he likes on the last day of the year. If  he’s a failure, he can wear a bin bag. Likewise each class teacher – jeans for success, bin bags for failure. Then everyone, parents, pupils, colleagues and the public can see who the good teachers are and who the bad teachers are.

Do I hear you say that you don’t like the idea of your target achievement being made public? That as a teacher you have a right to privacy if you’re failing? That it’s humiliating? You’d be right. It is. So don’t do it to your pupils.

The green light to get tough

The issue of discipline is much in the news at present, and this week teachers are being given the green light to get tough with ‘tried and tested punishments’ which ‘remain appropriate responses to bad behaviour.’ These tried and tested punishments?  ’Writing lines, essay-writing, uniform checks, weekend detentions, being told to report early in the morning and through the day.’ It’s also suggested that pupils should pick up litter, clear up the dining hall, clean off graffiti and tidy classrooms.

I have, in the language of the courts, one response, ‘Objection!’

Firstly, I object to the nature of said punishments. In effective schools, students already pick up litter (their own), clean off graffiti (their own), clear up mess in the dining hall (their own) and tidy classrooms (their own). That’s what happens in a positive, co-operative community. As soon as you expect one student to clear up another student’s mess, you will have a sure and certain outbreak of littering/graffiti/dropped food and an emergent hierarchy as little emperors and empresses realise that they can mess up the environment with impunity because the naughty kid will have to clear it up. It’s the slippery slope to a culture of institutionally endorsed bullying.

And take the writing of lines and essays as punishment – take the idea and drown it in a very deep sea. I teach English. I’ve spent years of my life engendering a love of writing in anxious, hesitant and fragile writers. I’ve spent years helping gifted and talented writers to develop their skills. Writing is hard work, even when you’re confident (and I should know; I now earn my living by writing). The word ‘Philistine’ is too good for anyone who would wantonly destroy carefully nurtured, positive attitudes by ever using writing as a punishment.

Secondly, I object because good behaviour requires self-control and there is plenty of research which shows that carrots and sticks are the least effective means of supporting its development. People conform to behaviour rules for a range of reasons, but they all involve a measure of internalisation. People (and that includes adults) conform because there’s more in it for them (selfish view). People conform because they genuinely believe that it is the right thing to do (moral view). People conform because they think it’s best for their community, even if they disagree with the rule (altruistic view). People conform because they dislike the look of the probable punishment (pragmatic view). Some people conform out of sheer fear of the consequences. But whatever the  reason, pro-social behaviour choices come from within. They can never be imposed externally.

Thirdly, I object because teachers alone cannot change social values. The biggest problem in the classroom today is low-level persistent nuisance behaviour and everyone has a part to play in solving this. Policy should be clear. Students should know what it is. Teachers should apply it. School leaders should back staff up. Always. On every occasion, Without fail. And school leaders should definitely deal with parents who object, rather than leave class teachers to handle them.

Finally, I object because the government, (yes, the government that wants a hands-off decentralised system) is telling teachers what punishments should be used. Consistency, both in expectation of behaviour and in the application of sanctions when expectations aren’t met, is the proven route to shaping good behaviour. So perhaps, instead of interfering at classroom level with a list of suggested punishments, the government should spend more time understanding, as good teachers do, the reasons for poor behaviour.

I’m not advocating that we should ever allow reasons to become excuses, but to understand an anti-social choice is to shape a response (and if necessary, punishment) that causes the chooser to confront the reasons for, and consequences of, the choice. That, not the mindless writing of lines, is a more effective route to developing the self-control which is fundamental to being a decent member of society.




You have to say that, you’re my mother

A new study has just been released from researchers at the University of Southampton and Ohio State University, which concludes that praising children with low self-esteem can actually be counter-productive and can force them back into their shells, worrying that their current achievement will determine an adult’s future expectation. But to stop doing something which they see as helpful is counter-intuitive to a caring parent.

In one research study, 144 parents were asked to work with their children on a maths exercise. The parents (mostly mothers) praised their children on average 6 times, about 25% of which was inflated for children perceived to have low self-esteem, with use of words like ‘incredible’. The thinking appeared to be that these children needed additional praise to make them feel better about themselves.

In a further part of the study, 240 children were asked to copy a Van Gogh painting, receiving feedback from a person whom they understood to be a professional painter. They were then invited to draw other pictures of their own choice, some of which were tagged as easy with low learning content, and others of which tagged as difficult but with significant learning potential. The children with low self-esteem chose the easier pictures, whilst the confident children chose the harder option. The report concludes that inflated praise could pressurise some children into taking easy options.

The study has met with mixed response, which mostly centres on the fact that not only is flannel of any kind perceived by children to be false, but that boosting self-esteem is just one of those things that caring adults do - as one of my children used to say whenever I embarked on esteem raising conversations, ‘You have to say that, you’re my mother. It’s in the job description.’ Categorising children as ‘low’ and ‘high’ self-esteem is probably also too blunt an instrument, but the central point of the research still holds good – that false praise is, at least, a waste of words and at most could put the recipient under pressure to perform similarly in future. So it could, at its worst, push children into taking the easy option to avoid failure, keep face and retain approval. The moral? Make sure that praise is always focused, realistic, genuine and evidenced.

In contrast, Steven Reiss, Professor Emeritus at Ohio State University has arrived at a conclusion about motivation that suggests that praise may not be necessary at all. Following research which involved 60,000 people across the US, Europe and Asia, he has concluded that to motivate someone, we need to appeal to their values. He quotes various examples, including the football coach who motivates his team by telling them that a match is a test of character (his research mostly showed that the players didn’t care much about character) or successful parents who try to motivate their laid-back teenager by stressing the importance of achievement – if the teenager valued achievement in the same way as the parent, he/she wouldn’t be laid back.

So, much of what we do to motivate children, both as parents and teachers, may be nothing more than an attempt to impose our values. It then follows that the only way we can achieve conformity is through praise, aka bribery. We are all motivated by different things – some by money, some by feelings of competence and others by feeling that they are making a worthwhile contribution. In order to motivate, we need to think beyond our own personal value system.

From nearly two decades of research, Professor Reiss has defined 16 common psychological needs that are our motivators in various combinations. They are acceptance, curiosity, eating, family, honour, idealism, independence, order, physical activity, power, romance, saving, social contact, status, tranquillity, and vengeance. When we use praise in the context of values, it becomes a reinforcement of shared understanding and praise for a person’s values, not their achievement.

So how best to motivate learning? Understand the values of the learner and focus on what they, not you, care about.

Rewarding children for kindness?

The lead article in TES today is titled ‘Teaching kids to be kind’, followed by a standfirst that declaims, ‘Psychologists and teachers now believe that children can be taught kindness by rewarding them for acts of compassion’. Well here’s one teacher who doesn’t believe that reward is the answer and this is why …

Much of the article is excellent – for example the point that we (both teachers and parents) should always explain why we are upset with poor behaviour by pointing the child to the consequences of unkindness - it hurts other people. We learn to empathise by understanding that how we treat other people affects them. There is also an excellent explanation of how we interpret the actions of others based on our own experiences - children who experience physical harm at the hands of those who should love them will interpret an accidental brush past them as a hostile act and respond accordingly. It therefore follows that those children who have experienced kindness and compassion will not only themselves be kind and compassionate, but will expect other people to be just like them.

And of course it makes sense that role play, creative writing and discussion about kindness and its impact on others is vital in school life, particularly for those children whose home life is quite the opposite – for some children, it will be their first experience of compassion and care. So in that sense, yes, kindness can be taught.

But this is where I disagree – it can’t be ‘taught’ by reward. There is plenty of evidence (cf the work of Ed Deci and Richard Ryan) that rewarding good behaviour (whether academic or social) devalues the task or pro-social choice; as if the rewarder is somehow saying that the task or choice isn’t of enough value in its own right so it needs external motivation by the adult in authority. There is also plenty of evidence to suggest that if a reward (aka bribe) is on offer, a child will comply to achieve the reward without any permanent change in behaviour. This is a point made in the article: ‘when kindness is rewarded with praise and affection, it ceases to be its own reward’ although this line of thought isn’t pursued. The children I interviewed for my book spotted this when I asked them about getting merits for good manners. Most of them thought it was a bad idea to get merits for manners because that was what everyone should do in a caring community. Some children openly acknowledged that getting rewards didn’t make any difference to their choices – if they wanted to be unkind, a bit of paper or a treat wasn’t going to stop them. And everyone was universally cross, even angry, about the Dodo bird effect which says that all must win prizes.

The article describes one school where children who have been kind sit on golden thrones – pure Skinnerism in action, and I won’t bore you further with my view of Skinnerism and its dangers, which I have written plenty about in the past. If only it was so simple. What the golden thrones approach (or any other reward structure) fails to realise is that we are complex beings, each with a unique set of values, beliefs and ways of interpreting other people through these filters. At the end of the day, we make prosocial decisions as a matter of personal choice, based on intrinsic motivation. Children can’t be conditioned into behaviour patterns, like so many Skinnerian rats.

When one ‘virtue consultant’ (tricky job description that, based on the adage that one man’s virtue is another man’s vice) says that, ‘When we, as adults, are acknowledged for doing something kind, we glow inside’ and  that ‘All of us crave meaningful recognition in life’, he is portraying the root of the problem. His filters inform his own self-speak on this issue and he assumes that everyone else is the same as him. Well, here’s one person who isn’t. I don’t glow inside when I’m acknowledged for doing something kind  and I certainly don’t ‘crave meaningful recognition’ in my life. It’s nice if I get it, but I don’t crave it and wouldn’t act any differently if I didn’t. And just one other point – the virtue consultant says that ‘Children are kind to themselves’. He’s very fortunate if this is his experience of children, because I’ve taught plenty who are quite the opposite – they hate themselves, they harm themselves and there is no simple answer to helping these children to respect and care about themselves. Certainly a couple of golden thrones in assembly won’t change the complex beliefs that inform self-harming behaviour or that which harms others.

So yes, kindness can be taught in that it can be modelled and its impact on others can be discussed. But I’ve yet to meet a child, any child, who can be bribed into sustainable behaviour change. Acknowledge kindness - yes. Encourage kindness - yes. Bribe kindness - no. Children’s lives are too valuable for that. It takes time, patience, love, skill and trust. In other words, it takes relationship. And when you have that relationship, no rewards are needed beyond acknowledgement. How do I know – because a lot of children told me so when I was researching my book and they are on the receiving end of our reward systems every day, so I think they should know.





‘… the pyramid that beguiled business’

An article entitled, ‘Abraham Maslow and the pyramid that beguiled business’ caught my eye on the BBC website recently, because I wrote about said pyramid in my book Praise, Motivation and the Child. I read the article, listened to the Radio 4 Mind Changers programme which prompted the article, and felt vaguely disappointed.

Maslow, an American psychologist, worked at a time when thinking about motivation was dominated by the behaviourist theory of Skinner et al. But Maslow clearly thought that there was more to motivation than mere reward, so in 1943 he published his thinking in a paper titled A Theory of Human Motivation (note the fact that it was a theory). He defined five sets of needs, each of which, he suggested, needed to be satisfied before the next level could be addressed, hence the hierarchy (the conceptualisation of it as a pyramid was a later construct not of Maslow’s design). The most essential need, he argued, was to eat, drink and sleep (physiological need). The next step was to feel secure, knowing that future needs could be met (safety need). Next come the needs for friendship and love (social need) and recognition and status amongst peers (esteem need). Only then, Maslow argued, could the final stage of self-actualisation (ie personal growth such as learning) be met.

Maslow’s theory quickly gained ground as employers realised that having an efficient, effective and loyal workforce involved more than just the transaction of a salary in exchange for work. But after his death in 1970, Maslow’s work started to attract negative responses, not least because he was a theorist, with no empirical research data to support his hypothesis. It was argued that writers and artists write and paint even when they are hungry and nearly destitute; people become hermits to pursue a particular philosophy, while others climb mountains in spite of the risk of death.

To me, this seems to miss some key points, not least that the above examples are of people who choose to sublimate basic needs to a higher purpose. As Margie Lachman, Maslow’s successor at Brandeis University in Massachusetts points out, he understood that our behaviour is not just controlled by the external rewards and reinforced conditioning of behaviourist theory. We also have internal motivations. At a time when these were little understood, Maslow presented a theory which changed people’s thinking, paving the way for the humanist and positive psychology movements which shape current thinking.

As a teacher, I find Maslow’s work, even if it  is only an untested theory, very logical. We know that hungry, exhausted, frightened children can’t learn, so we feed them, create schools which are places of safety and let them rest when they need to. We know that children need friends, so we work to create caring communities in which each person is valued. And we know that as they grow up, children become increasingly aware of their need for status as they manoeuvre for academic, social or notoriety position with their peers. If any of these needs is paramount, learning can be short-circuited.

It isn’t, of course, as straightforward as the pyramid suggests because the layers are  interdependent. A student who has just been rejected by their social group will feel insecure and maybe even unsafe. And of course, as adults, we calculate, not eliminate, risk before we act when we climb mountains. But I think it’s impossible to overestimate the effect of Maslow’s Theory in moving our thinking beyond the extrinsic control of behaviourism to an understanding of intrinsic motivation.

Any theory which acknowledges that intrinsic desire is a much more powerful motivational force than external reward (aka bribe) wins in my thinking.


Everybody has won and all must have prizes

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?




Praise, motivation and digital gaming – is there a connection?

Recently I came across some research by Shaaron Ainsworth of the University of Nottingham and Jacob Habgood from Sheffield Hallam which provided answers to some questions I asked in my book Praise, Motivation and the Child. In my book, I touch on the issue of gaming and its value in terms of motivating learners.

There are key elements of gaming which make it intrinsically motivational, that is, something which a person chooses to do for themselves rather than having it imposed on them. Firstly, gamers can select their own level and I’ve never yet met a gamer who chooses a level lower than the one which they have already achieved just to make life easier and avoid effort. There is always an inner compulsion to reach the next level which engages every thinking and problem-solving skill that the gamer possesses. If new skills are needed, they are defined and mastered. Additionally, gaming gives instant, precise and detailed feedback which is used to set goals. Gamers can choose their own strategies and tactics to achieve a required outcome and imagination is sparked.

How many of the words in the previous paragraph form part of modern education-speak – the Holy Grail of learning? And if gaming provides an opportunity to think, solve problems, stretch imagination and set goals, why are we not making more use of it in schools? An answer is contained in  Ainsworth and Habgood’s research, which suggests that the fundamental design of educational games is responsible as software has ‘attempted to harness games as extrinsic motivation by using them as a sugar-coating for learning.’ In other words, the behaviourist paradigm is so deeply embedded in educational thinking that it even corrupts the design of software aiming to offer motivational learning opportunities. Teachers, it seems, are dominated by the need to control learning input, learning outcomes and the route which learners take to achieve them.

In his 2011 book Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us, Daniel Pink argues that we need a motivation upgrade. Teachers, he suggests, are not only more aware than most of the need to motivate learners, but they are also the most reluctant to shift from a behaviourist to a constructivist paradigm. The need to make that shift is implicit in Ainsworth and Habgood’s findings.

They designed a game called Zombie Division, a 3D combat adventure in which opponents are mathematically divided in order to be defeated. Three versions of the game were produced. The intrinsic version integrated maths within the game. The extrinsic version put multiple choice maths questions between the combat levels and the third version contained no maths. Two different studies were then conducted ; the first measured learning gains and the second measured time spent on the task. The results showed that children learnt more from the intrinsic game and also chose to continue playing it for seven times longer when the fixed time period was complete.

The results confirm Habgood’s hypothesis that  there are key factors which need to be considered when designing intrinsically integrated educational games. The material to be learnt needs to be delivered in those parts of the game which are the most fun, but should be done so without disturbing the participant’s state of flow. But the learning material must also form part of the core mechanics of gameplay, not just overlaid onto the game.

The children involved in the project not only showed learning gains but they also demonstrated increased enthusiasm when division was the topic of their maths lessons. So what are the implications for motivated learning and effective teaching? Are teachers controllers and gatekeepers who need to dole out stars, certificates and points-win-prizes in order to maintain control and direct all that happens? Or can teachers structure, lead, offer challenge and acknowledge learning without recourse to external goodies as a form of motivation?

Facilitating intrinsically motivated learning requires a paradigm shift in those delivering the teaching. But there is no doubt that moving away from external control as a form of motivation, in whatever medium the learning material is delivered, not only raises engagement and improves behaviour, but also puts the power to learn in the hands of those who learn.

So is there a connection between praise, motivation and digital gaming? There is no doubt that gamers are intrinsically motivated to play. If that can be annexed for learning in the narrower sense of the school curriculum, then why not? But fostering intrinsically motivated learners is not as simple as providing well designed software. It really does require an upgrade in thinking, away from behaviourism and towards constructivist thinking. How willing is the world of education to engage?




Should children be paid to go to school?

The issue of rewarding children to go to school is a contentious one – many schools use incentives to encourage regular attendance, some of which are tied into much wider reward schemes designed to develop acceptable learning and social behaviours. But are these strategies achieving anything? And if so, what are they actually achieving? Is it genuine learning or merely compliance?

I taught in a school once which took pride in its wide array of awards, certificates and incentives to encourage attendance and socially acceptable behaviour once the children were in school. Attendance was generally good, behaviour was usually good and children mostly valued their school community. But I’ll never forget the day one (already vulnerable) child suffered a miserable afternoon because he was the only child in his class not to get a 100% attendance certificate for the half term. It cost his class top slot on the attendance leader board. And the reason for his absence – he was sometimes kept home from school in order to carry his Granny’s shopping. Everyone knew and his mother knew that everyone knew, but his absence was always explained with a note stating illness. At that point, in that assembly, the only thing which mattered to that child was that he had let his class down and they weren’t going to let him forget it in a hurry, even though it was not his fault. Was the attendance award a good idea? I don’t think so. It labelled a child a public failure, leaving him torn between loyalty to his class and friends and loyalty to his family. The view of the Head was that the child’s distress would be an incentive to the mother to send her child to school.

Such rewards are, of course, an attempt to manipulate and control the behaviour not only of children but also of parents. The belief in their efficacy stems from a behaviourist perspective which says that we can change behaviour merely by rewarding it when it’s good. The same principle applies to the much larger schemes used in secondary schools where pupils can exchange reward points for quite valuable material items. Many parents with children in schools where these systems operate complain that their children should not be rewarded for doing what they should do anway – going to school, being polite, being punctual, respecting others and working hard. After all, adults aren’t paid for turning up to work. They’re paid for doing something useful when they get there. But an American study conducted by the Harvard academic Roland Fryer revealed a much more worrying argument than the ethical one.

He led a wide scale project across several cities in which students were paid to attend school, or to read a certain number of books. Attendance improved or there was a marked increase in the number of books read; whatever was being paid for improved. But at the end of the project, it was discovered that however willingly students engaged with the scheme, end of year test scores showed little, or no, improvement. The reason? They were sitting in classrooms but they had no idea how to learn. So in the same way that sitting in an igloo doesn’t make you Inuit, or putting on a sitting harness doesn’t make you a climber, sitting in a classroom doesn’t make you a learner. Money got students back into the classroom, but it didn’t adress the problems which had caused the dropout in the first place. Many of these students really wanted to succeed, but they didn’t know how to and money didn’t solve that problem.

So should we pay children to go to school? Perhaps the answer to that should be ‘Why?’ What do we hope to achieve? High attendance figures don’t ensure high quality teaching and learning. Maybe if a school has to bribe its students to go there, it has either failed to provide anything more attractive or it is wasting money on something which students have every intention of doing anyway. In the same way that you can take a horse to water, but it’s the horse’s choice to drink, you can put a pupil in a classroom but it’s the pupil’s choice to learn. Oh, and the teacher’s responsibility to understand that learning motivation cannot be bought.

Next post: Can gaming strategies aid learning?


What happens when children are praised?

It all started 24 years ago with a blue umbrella. A strange place for a book to start, you might think, but that was the first time I questioned the efficacy of star charts, rewards and bribing children to change their behaviour. Many years later, the incident made more sense as I researched my recently published book  Praise, Motivation and the Child.

So how does the blue umbrella figure? My son was 3 years old. He had seen the umbrella in a shop window and for days every walk ended up at the shop with his nose pressed against the glass begging me to buy the umbrella. Carpe diem, I thought. I wanted him to stop sucking his fingers and here was my chance. With star chart constructed and process explained, I watched as my son dutifully stopped sucking his fingers, even in his sleep. I learnt a lot about determination and self-control when the outcome is important enough to the bribed individual. I also learnt the uselessness of bribery in behaviour moderation when we celebrated a full star chart by buying the umbrella. Hardly had the transaction been completed and the umbrella handed over when in went his fingers. Objective met. Outcome achieved. But only for him. He carried on sucking his fingers until he started school and long after the umbrella had been abandoned.

So what had happened? At the time I concluded that I should have kept the star chart going until he broke the habit. But nobody had told him that there was a hidden agenda. He had done exactly as asked. Nobody had mentioned the ‘for ever’ bit of giving up his soggy fingers. But as children grow up, they become increasingly aware that adults around them are using these strategies to bribe them into conformity. Most of the time, they play the game because they get something out of it and it pleases adults that they enjoy pleasing.

But there’s also another level to this and it stems from a behaviourist approach to behaviour moderation. The book examines the formation of behaviourist theory and its application in the context of education. If you read the book, it will make you reflect on your reasons for giving stars, stickers and certificates. And the reason for praising a child is the crux of the issue. Children are not programmable – they have minds of their own, reasons for making the choices they make (both good and bad choices) and unique ways of processing information before making a choice. There is no ‘one size fits all’ answer. And perhaps cruellest of all is the fact that the application of behaviourism in a classroom manipulates a basic human instinct to belong, by making conformity and obedience the price for admittance to a controlled classroom community. Every time a child strays, he becomes either a social pariah or a focus of peer respect, depending on the age of the children and the ethos of the school.

Take, for example, the teacher who says, ‘Well done, Joe. You’re sitting beautifully and you’re ready to learn. Collect a star at the end of the lesson.’ The child is in an invidious position because the subtext of the comment is, ‘and aren’t the rest of you bad for not being ready’. The teacher controls by selective praise also, in the process, creating a pet; the social implications for Joe with his peers make for thought provoking discussion. How much better to say, ‘Thank you for being ready to listen. Most of you are ready. Just one or two people to settle’. This simultaneously acknowledges a corporate action and creates an expectation of readiness to which most of the children will respond. This might seem an insignifcant example, but it is a very significant indicator of a teacher’s relationship with a class and the reason for praising children.

Relationship, in the final count, is everything. A substantial part of the book relies on interviews with children. As far as I know, this is the only book which actually asks children what they think. And the results are surprising. They understand the praise game and play along with it, subverting it when it suits them. Their reasons for collecting stars is very different from adult intentions. And here’s the important point – it has nil effect on their learning or their desire to learn. Often the children who saw this most clearly were the children on the ubiquitous behaviour charts. I would be rich if I had £1 for every time a child said in interview, ‘I behave how I want to behave even if you take something away (break, computer time, privilege, etc.) for doing the wrong thing.’

So does praise modify behaviour? Of itself, no. The children themselves say it should be given privately, by an adult that they like or trust, it should be personal, it should mean something and it should acknowledge something specific in a way that can be shared at home. Otherwise, they told me, it was just (at best) noise or (at worst) a teacher trying to control them.

Utlimately, of course, power actually lies with the child, not the teacher; the vast majority of children choose compliance because what they are being asked to do is the right thing to do anyway. And they are, apparently, quietly happy to let teachers think that they are in control while continuing to collect the ‘bits of sticky paper’ that obviously matter to adults.

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