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.

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