Friday, April 8, 2011

Rewards and recognition

In a family program last month for Kitah Bet (grade 2), we asked the students to create a description of an ideal parent while their parents, in another room, wrote about their own parents.

One item on the students’ list was that parents should reward good behavior. We didn’t ask how parents should reward good behavior, but most parents would agree that tangible rewards are rarely appropriate—they would seem too much like bribes.

The same question comes up with respect to accomplishment in school. Although there is some disagreement, most educators oppose the routine use of tangible rewards. We feel that academic accomplishment should be recognized but that the accomplishment is its own reward.

But how should it be recognized? Should our school have an honor roll? I can remember when it was common for teachers in the public schools to affix gold stars to students’ work, and now we can get six-pointed star stickers. Whether we do this or not, most students seem to be eager to receive praise for their work.

A radical strain in educational theory argues, however, that accomplishment should not be praised. Most teachers naturally limit public praise of individual work in order not to discourage other students, but some educators are also concerned the praise for work already completed may intimidate students—that it may create a fear of not being able to repeat the accomplishment.

This concern is particularly associated with the secular educator Alfie Kohn. His book Punished by Rewards argues that not only bribes, but also grades, praise, and incentives of all kinds may be counterproductive.

Kohn is slightly less radical than those who oppose all praise and recognition, but he recommends that praise be interpretive rather than evaluative. For example, if shown a child’s drawing, instead of saying, “Very good!” he might respond, “The way you’ve drawn the sky is interesting.”

In the mainstream of child psychology, there is more general agreement that praise should focus on the accomplishment, not on the child, emphasizing actions (which the child has the capacity to change) rather than abilities (which are largely innate). Thus, a parent or teacher might praise the effort a student puts into a project, or the study method the student used. We might also recognize the basic facts of the accomplishment, such as the number of test questions answered correctly, and help the student to understand what could be done to improve. We would avoid praising a student for intelligence, dexterity, or ability with languages.

This is a special concern in the Jewish Community School because we are considering introducing the Mitkadem program for Hebrew. Unlike conventional textbooks, Mitkadem is designed to be self-paced after the beginning levels, and because every unit must be learned to the point of mastery, there is no such thing as a poor grade.

With self-pacing and learning for mastery, the result is that students who attend regularly and work harder complete more units in a year than do students who are absent frequently or make less effort. A student’s progress is measured by the number of units completed. We will need to consider whether to recognize students for the units completed and what number of units would constitute satisfactory or better progress.


There was a time in America, circa 1950, when the nouns “Communist” and “Jew” were closely associated. In a 1948 survey by the American Jewish Committee, 21% answered yes to the question “Do you think most Jews are Communists?” An informal survey showed that more than half the people mentioned Jews in responding to the question “What do you think of the atom [spy] stories in the newspapers?” even though the question didn’t mention Jews.

Similarly, in the Peekskill Riots of 1949, rioters with rocks and baseball bats attacked audience members arriving for a concert by the black singer Paul Robeson, who had defended Communism. In addition to shouting anti-Communist slogans, the rioters shouted anti-black and anti-Jewish slogans.

These episodes come to mind because of the hearings scheduled by Rep. Peter King, who represents a district on Long Island, to investigate radicalization among Muslims in the United States. The New York Times observed, “Notice that the hearing is solely about Muslims. It might be perfectly legitimate for the Homeland Security Committee to investigate violent radicalism in America among a wide variety of groups, but that doesn’t seem to be Mr. King’s real interest.”

Writing in USA Today
, David P. Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Georgia, said, “The focus, after all, is on the purported radicalization of the ‘American Muslim community.’ Not a tiny pocket. But all Muslim Americans can fall under this umbrella of suspicion.”

The Times concluded that Rep. King was “more interested in exploiting ethnic misunderstanding than in trying to heal it.” The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights warned that King’s investigation “will inevitably stoke anti-Muslim sentiment and increase suspicion and fear,” and said that terrorists should be identified by behavior, not religion or ethnicity.

There is unanimous agreement that activity by Islamic extremists in recruiting terrorists must be investigated, but many experts warn that a heavy-handed investigation of entire community would be more likely to stimulate radicalization than to prevent it. Furthermore, 30% of U.S. Muslims suspected of terrorist activity since 2001 were found through tips by other American Muslims.

The anti-Communist hearings in Congress led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s never investigated Jews as a group, even though many Jews were called to testify before his committee and lost their livelihoods because of it. Several members of McCarthy’s staff, including his chief counsel, Roy Cohn, were Jewish. Cohn, however, is reported to have said that, “not all Jews are Communists, but all Communists are Jews.”

More than once in our history we have been branded as radical, subversive, or dangerous across the board, and it is wrong for us to treat any other religious or ethnic group in the same way. We should keep in mind the statement by Denis McDonough, the deputy national security advisor: “We must resolve that, in our determination to protect our nation, we will not stigmatize or demonize entire communities because of the actions of a few. In the United States of America, we don’t practice guilt by association. And let’s remember that just as violence and extremism are not unique to any one faith, the responsibility to oppose ignorance and violence rests with us all.”

Ye and We

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