Praise and rewards systems are evident and used in most primary classrooms I visit. I understand why the arguments for why they are used and that schools have policies on how they should be implemented. The problem is as a visiting practitioner my practice aims to do without these structures through using a system of dramatic inquiry that embraces co construction and develops confidence. Participation works on ‘hooking’ (cheers Hwyel Roberts: Oops, Learning Accidentally) in.
How often have I been in classrooms having delivered a successful, participatory workshop only for the value of every child’s contribution to be completely squashed with the sentence “Can you just pick one child who you think has done really well?”. This type of comment is usually given at the end of a session in a very loud voice. I watch with horror as the children that have been working together and functioning as independent learners as a collective suddenly sit up, crossed legged, fingers on lips, hold their breath, go red faced in wide eyed desperation as they covert the sticker that has been placed in to my hand. Now sometimes I can quietly get in there quickly and explain to the member of staff that I don’t ‘do’ stickers however sometimes it is too late and then I am left in a position of undermining the teacher with whom I am aiming to work in partnership with or going against my considered practice. Stickers and choosing ‘one special child’ in my work, my practice, often my one day session, is not needed as my aim is that the children engage and participate in the activity because it is purposeful, they are invested and they care deeply about the work (thanks to Dorothy Heathcote for this!).
Let me give three examples of how this problem has manifested itself in my experience as a freelance visiting practitioner.
A Year One class in a very very socially deprived area where every corridor echoed with the sound of shouting and screaming from both teachers and children. The behaviour of the class I was working with (once a week for the year) was chaotic and often very violent. I was working with a small group of these children in the hall looking at developing their imaginations: schools aim (and how to work together: my aim!) The teacher had employed a number of behaviour management systems from traffic lights, stickers as well as a whole class jar (which when they filled with points meant they would get a treat at the end of the term.) For the first few weeks the teacher would begin sending the children with me by literally waving the sheets of stickers at the children saying “I’m giving these to Miss Bramley so if you are good you will get a sticker” etc etc. The children stood to attention and marched down the hall before we began our chaotic, challenging session! At the end the children would demand to know who ‘deserved’ a sticker. Now by the rules that had been laid down by the teacher none of them ‘deserved’ a sticker. We were early on in developing our relationship and we were figuring each other out. I was very uncomfortable with the whole sticker bribe at the start which by the end of the session had turned into a sticker punishment. We engaged in a few conversations about rewards with me asking the children what they thought but they lived their lives from surviving moment to moment, clearly in the here and now and the process of reflection was yet to begin. After about two sessions I decided to dump the stickers. The next session the children asked me “Do I deserve a sticker?” to which I replied “I don’t do stickers.” They stared at me a little confused then shrugged their shoulders and went back to their classroom. Over the following year we built an amazing relationship where the children began to listen, respect each other, focus within the space and engage in the work. We didn’t change the world or their lives but we started from a place of neutrality and built a kind, respectful relationship. One of sharing rather than the waving of a bribe which would often result in yet more failure within their young lives. I don’t offer any criticism of the teacher (this was definitely one of the toughest areas I have ever worked in and she was there every day) but after that I decided that I would not use stickers or similar forms of rewards.
Example two involves observing another practitioner. I had arrived in reception to see “Dylan”, Year Two being dropped off by his parents and social worker. He and his two brothers saw them once a week and I just happened to be there most weeks when he was saying goodbye. It was a distressing scene to watch as the youngest was prized from their parents arms to go to class although “Dylan” was always quiet but sad. In the session I watched “Dylan” contributing quietly, offering ideas and focusing well within the drama. The children all enjoyed the session and were just about to leave when the practitioner said “Oops, I forgot the stickers”. The children immediately ran towards him, surrounded him, arms crossed, fingers on lips and all of those usual adapted behaviours associated with the word “sticker”. Whilst the practitioner handed out three or four giving various reasons (all justified) Dylan quietly stood behind him saying, in his little voice over and over again “but you’ve forgotten me!”. His look was total confusion. Hadn’t he been ‘good’? Given ideas? and all the other things the other children had got stickers for. Dylan had done what he had always done, quietly participated on the edge. To him he had done everything he was supposed to and was ok until the mention of the S word. To him he had simply been ‘forgotten’.
Look at the language so far from these kids…deserve….forgotten…
The final example comes from another socially deprived area where I had been asked to work in a Year Three class and this example brings me on to a different sort of child…the “gifted and talented” girl. There we are preparing for our mission to the jungle to begin our animal rescue (which I can assure you is dangerous work!). Throughout the whole session one girl “Jade” had placed herself firmly at my side often instructing others, offering to hand things out for me and was clearly not truly engaged in the task. Whilst every member (even Kyle eventually!) was busy getting their equipment ready for our dangerous mission Jade had not even begun to enter the fictional world and was much more concerned with demonstrating to me her knowledge of classroom management, telling me who was ‘good’ and who ‘was always like that!’. At the end of the session the TA asked me to hand out rewards however this was done without the children noticing so I managed to ‘get in there’ and say that I didn’t ‘do’ that as part of my practice. The children didn’t ask for them and were busy lining up at the door, smiles on the faces ready for their break. They all left except Jade who came marching up to me saying “Can I have a sticker because I’ve done good work.” I explained to her that I didn’t hand out stickers and spoke about how every had worked really well and responsibly to save the animals in our story. She looked at me blankly, turned her head to the TA and repeated her statement. What I then witnessed was quite amazing as Jade negotiated a reward from the TA using various tactics and explanations until finally the TA agreed that she could have one. Jade was not going to go to break until she had got her sticker for doing ‘good’ work and she got one. In fact Jade hadn’t done ‘good’ work. She hadn’t really worked at the task I had set but had set her own agenda: managing the classroom. What Jade did was behave in a way that she was clearly used to being praised and that was deemed as ‘good’ behaviour. But she didn’t engage. She behaved. Different things! In fact Kyle, if anyone ,deserved a sticker from moving from running around the room hitting people, to carefully keeping our camp fire (all imaginary) lit and well stocked for base camp. Jade’s lack of engagement in the whole process meant she missed out, didn’t gain anything, didn’t develop in any way yet her understanding is that by being a small TA and handing out the pencils means that she gets rewarded.
I don’t do stickers because I am trying to move every child to want to participate because they have to, are self motivated to and that the rewards come from this participation. That they behave because they are so engrossed in the problem we are trying to solve. Of course this isn’t the case for every child in every workshop but then I must work harder, try different things and if I fail to attract them to what I am dong then I will go away reflect, read, refine and try again. So please next time I visit your school watch what is happening and question, look, demand to see how they are engaging but please don’t ask me to give out stickers.