When I grew up, in the 80’s, the focus was very much on achieving, on ‘being the best’, on ruthlessly getting to the top no matter what. I can recall, at school, the air of competition that existed then – how those of us who were academically inclined were not satisfied unless we were getting all A’s and who saw getting a C as something of a failure.
Accordingly, our school awarded high achievers with certificates and trophies. I received awards for coming first in Art, and History and English. In fact, now when I look back at those times, I am surprised at how obsessed I was with the notion of ‘coming first’.
I began my teaching career at the end of the 80’s, when values were changing, but found, during my early teaching years, that I was still tempted to reward those who achieved A’s, while almost ignoring those students whose hard work and persistence had resulted in their going from an E to a D.
It took me a while to realise that students who made steady and gradual progress needed just as much praise and reward as those who were coming ‘first’. Then, when I did, I noticed that students who made gradual, tiny improvements were more likely to keep trying if their efforts were recognised, encouraged and rewarded.
In fact, when I did spend time rewarding their improvements, no matter how small, their improvement levels were more sustained than when I only rewarded those who attained A’s and B’s.
I shall use my regular Monday morning spelling tests as an example of what I mean.
Monday mornings in my English classes meant spelling tests and the opportunity to provide the new weekly spelling lists. When I first began my teaching career, I would administer these tests and then provide a chocolate reward for those who came top of the class. It worried me, though, that many students were not as driven as I had always been, to strive to get the highest mark possible. The same small handful of students kept winning the prizes.
Then, one morning, I changed how I fed back the results to the students. I presented their results in the mode of a top 20 music countdown, and wrote the results up as a top 20 list. I knew the kids then were addicted to listening to the Sunday evening Top 20 on the radio, so thought it would be fun following the format.
“And this week,” I would say,” rising three places from last week’s number 14 to number 11 is ...”
When I looked at the list, I noticed that quite a few students had made improvements, and the more I presented their results in this way, the more I noticed how much pride some students would have in just going up by one place per week. They enjoyed seeing an upwards arrow next to their name, even if it indicated a move up by just one point, or position.
So, if a student was getting 5 out of 20 one week, and 6 the next, I would make a big song and dance about it, and express my delight at their improvement. “Onwards and upwards” became my annoying catch phrase.
Then, when I asked students to reflect on ways that they could improve their spellings, week upon week, there was a massive surge in attainment levels. So if that student received 6 out of 20 one week, I would get him to think of ways that he could ensure a 7 the following week, and an 8 the week thereafter, and so on.
Students began proffering different ways to improve – some were using cue cards, others were getting their folks to test them daily, some were attaching post-it notes on their cereal boxes. The point is, as long as I rewarded or acknowledged all improvements, the more likely students were to consider ways to do better.
It was gratifying to note how many students were not satisfied with my asking them to strive to get one mark more than their previous. Some got a kick out of being the ‘most improved’ while others would aim to get 3 or more than their previous result. So I would say things like, “Well done on getting 8 out of 20 – now let’s talk about how you can get 9 next week,” and would get a response like, “No, I want to try and get 12 or 13.”
The way we reflected for improvement and how I used pre and post test reflections, will be the focus of another blog later this year, but for now I want to emphasise that continuous improvement is more likely when students’ improvements are recognised and rewarded.
Although the idea of listening to the top 20 is no longer a trend amongst teenagers, I still like to present regular test results in the style of a radio presenter.
Here then, are a few ideas to support the concepts of recognition and reward.
1. Get other staff members to praise students too
Letting your colleagues know that so and so has gone up by 2 positions in a spelling test, for example, and asking them to acknowledge that when they see that student, goes a long way to making the student feel valued and appreciated. Imagine if you were that student, and you had made a small improvement, and then, when walking around the school, had teachers congratulate your efforts – how would that make you feel?
2. Call home to share the good news
I have mentioned positive phone calls before in a previous entry, but it is worth mentioning again. Calling home to congratulate a student on small improvements changes the paradigm where phone calls home usually indicate something wrong. Also, it allowed me to speak with parents regarding expectations for the next week’s spelling test. So if I was phoning to congratulate the student on getting 9 out of 20 one week, after getting 8 the previous week, I would have opportunity to encourage parents to assist students to do better the following week.
3. Create a RECOGNITION BOARD
A recognition board in the classroom is place where students who are making gradual improvements can have their efforts lauded and publically acknowledged. It is essentially just a space for you to record their names for others to see. I mention this here for those who are already acknowledging student attainment. So, if you have a space to congratulate those who are coming first or achieving A’s and B’s ... balance it out by also having a recognition space for those who are making gradual improvements.
4. Use CONSEQUENCE SACKS
Another idea which I have tried and which works well is the use of what I call ‘Consequence Sacks’. These are little bags filled with small pieces of paper upon which rewards and punishments are written. So a student who misbehaves will select his punishment from a red bag; a student who achieves will select a reward from a green bag, and a student who makes gradual improvements will select something from the blue bag. Rewards can range from sweeties to free-time cards, to phone calls home, to raffle tickets for a weekly prize.
This concludes my entries on the theme THE PRAISE MODEL. If you would like to share what you have done in the classroom to promote a positive learning environment, please feel free to comment below.