Good for you

5th June 2009 at 01:00
Praise is a good thing, right? According to experts, it's a question of how and why it's done

Pupil does their homework for the first time in weeks. Not very well, but they do it. Do you a) punish them b) encourage them to do better next time, or c) praise them?

Before the 1980s, a teacher may well choose the first option. But over the past 30 years, punishment has given way to a rewards-based approach to motivation. It is now so prevalent, that praise and rewards have become almost indispensable to teaching. Some schools spend up to pound;30,000 a year on incentives.

But a growing number of dissenters are voicing reservations. In a book published last month called Motivating Every Learner, Alan McLean explores the "Mars bar culture". External rewards - from chocolate to school trips - are distracting pupils from internal motivators, such as a sense of pride or satisfaction from a job well done, he argues. And "rewards inflation" means that schools must constantly up the ante to achieve the same hit.

"Just as fireworks or special effects have to be more and more spectacular to impress the crowd, so schools must offer ever greater rewards to gain attention," he says. "When things such as mountain bikes and iPods are being dished out, it's gone too far."

One 10-year-old pupil told Mr McLean, who is an educational psychologist based in Glasgow, that he had had enough of getting stickers for doing well. Another recalled being praised for sitting in her seat in Primary 1 (Year 1). "What's the point of doing anything if you're praised for just sitting?" she asked.

However, even Mr McLean acknowledges that praise, when handled correctly, has a place in schools. At Redscope Primary School in Rotherham, new technology is being used to promote a culture of praise. The school rewards pupils by sending them to the "praise pod" - an appealing egg- shaped chair facing an integrated computer webcam reminiscent of the Big Brother diary room.

There, the pupils record and report their achievements to a parent, teacher or governor manning the webcam. The footage can then be recorded and distributed to family, pupils or other members of staff.

"It's the opposite of the naughty corner," says Paula Dobbin, headteacher. "Praise has become a whole-school priority, and we always try to employ emotionally literate staff." Everyone from the dinner lady to the caretaker can recommend pupils for the praise pod for any good deed or work. It ensures the praise pod is available to all, including the quarter of Redscope pupils with special educational needs.

"We have one boy with an attachment disorder, who used to hit the first person he saw during breaktimes," says Ms Dobbin. Through one-to-one support and plenty of praise the school has managed to re-integrate him back into mainstream play.

"When staff see that he's playing well without thumping anyone, everyone reinforces that positive behaviour with a nice comment or a recommendation for the praise pod," says Ms Dobbin. "Good work can be undone through an inconsistent staff approach."

To change one behaviour takes about 200 reinforcements, says Richard Crook, who created the praise pod concept. By sharing the task across all the staff, schools can hit that target. "The more time we spend noticing and giving out attention to wanted behaviours, the more they happen," he says. "If the definition of `good behaviour' is too narrow some will feel excluded and opt out."

Most of the major research in this area backs this sort of approach. The 1989 Elton Report recommended a rewards to sanctions ratio of at least 5:1 - something echoed by the Steer Report in 2005. And last year, an Ofsted report suggested rewards were a "powerful incentive" for pupils who struggle with school.

"A mass of evidence shows that rewards and praise are far more effective than punishment," says Professor Susan Hallam, a leading authority on behaviour and attendance at the Institute of Education in London.

Praise and rewards underpin almost all we do, she argues. Even with computer games, players are usually congratulated with lights and music before moving up to the next level. The real test is whether it works.

"Look in detention, and it'll be the same pupils in there every week," says Professor Hallam. "Punishment rarely solves anything." Instead, rewarding a hard-working class with 10 minutes of football at the end of the day is both motivating and attainable.

Professor Hallam strongly rebukes accusations that this amounts to bribery. "Truants will only receive praise when they are in school, not when they're not," she says. "You only praise behaviours that you want to reinforce and encourage."

For attention-seeking pupils, even punishments will be rewarding. "A better solution is to ignore poor behaviour where possible and reward good behaviours, because this will lead to their repetition and bring about change."

Vivo Miles, a system where pupils can earn (and lose) miles for good behaviour or work, is a reflection of how far the rewards culture has come. Currently used in more than 50 schools, the miles allow teachers to award points for anything from good behaviour to healthy eating, which pupils can then exchange for prizes. They can check their account online using a special Vivo credit card.

Describing this as bribery is entirely misleading, insists George Grima from Vivo Miles. Just as employers receive a salary and sometimes a performance-related bonus at the end of the year, so pupils should be recognised for meeting targets. "We should acknowledge the incredibly hard work the majority of students put in during their school life and make sure the link between effort and reward is clear," he says.

But Dr Carol Craig, chief executive of the centre for confidence and well- being in Scotland, is not convinced. Although she is against going back to the "dark old days" when pupils were routinely put down or punished, she says too much praise is breeding a generation of narcissists and undermining learning.

"Praise is so much part of the zeitgeist; it's the spirit of our times," she says. "There is a collective viewpoint that schools must boost pupils' self-esteem. A lot of teachers have private reservations about that, but they don't say anything because they think it's politically incorrect."

Warning bells are already sounding across the Atlantic. Influential work by two American psychologists - Dr Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me, and Professor Carol Dweck, a leading researcher on motivation from Stanford University in California - have both highlighted how confidence and assertiveness, boosted through praise, can be counter-productive. Instead of happier pupils, it can actually make young people passive and dependent on the opinion of others.

Trying to cocoon pupils in an unrealistically positive environment does them no favours, agrees Dr Craig. "Challenge can be frustrating, but if pupils aren't allowed to feel frustrated, they'll never learn or progress."

Parents have bought into the self-esteem agenda, she adds, and are now quick to complain to schools if their child is unhappy or treated severely by teachers. Universities and employers also report that young people are not as willing to take criticism or meet exacting standards. "We're kidding ourselves if we think we can gain results only from working on the positives," says Dr Craig. "A balance has to be struck if praise isn't to backfire."

Both Dr Craig and Mr McLean would like to see a shift away from praise and towards encouragement. Ironically, pupils will find this more rewarding in the long term, they argue.

"We're in a transitional phase at the moment, but already in Scotland we're moving beyond praise and towards an encouragement culture," says Mr McLean.

Whereas praise is a benign form of control - implicitly judgmental and conditional - encouragement is more empowering and pushes pupils to take responsibility for their own learning, Mr McLean argues.

Rather than simply praising a piece of art, for example, an encouraging teacher will ask a pupil to think of ways they can improve on it or explain their approach. It takes more time, but is ultimately more meaningful. By putting pupils in charge of their own progress, their confidence and motivation will grow.

"Currently, teachers are told to praise everything, but look at nothing," says Mr McLean. "Pupils see through that plastic praise. They know if a teacher is bullshitting them, and it can leave them feeling patronised and pitied. That's not good for their self-belief, either. False praise breeds false confidence and, ultimately, resentment and mistrust."

Instead, teachers should provide pupils with the information they need to boost their own self-belief. Differentiation will also play a key role. Pupils who can not access the intrinsic rewards of the classroom may still need artificial rewards. Others will find praise a distraction and prefer formal techniques that help them improve further.

"Some pupils are inevitably focusing on the reward rather than the learning at the moment," says Mr McLean. "Children are sophisticated enough to know that there are different preferences and versions of fairness, especially if teachers discuss it with them."

In Mr McLean's ideal world, teachers will pursue a third way that transcends both the punishment and the praise era. For him, at least, "do better next time" is the preferred route every time

How praise works

Queensbridge School in Moseley, Birmingham

The fiercest advocates of praise are often those who have been denied it. Take Andrea Mackenzie, 37, who received scant recognition when she was at school.

"I was more in fear of teachers and criticism," says the head of Year 10. "I got praised so little it felt as if I was only getting attention for negative things. I became quite introverted."

Now Ms Mackenzie tries to find something in every pupil that is praiseworthy. The pupils who get referred to her have often had a lot of negative feedback, but once they have been genuinely praised, they get a kick from it and start to push for more. She also likes to involve their parents, often dropping them a card or phone call so they can share that sense of pride. Slowly, the children's behaviour becomes more malleable. "Not having praise is very detrimental to personal and emotional learning," she says. "I know. I've been there."

It was only through praise and constant encouragement that Lucretia Fields, 35, assistant headteacher, was able to aim high and apply for university. Now, she makes raising pupils' aspirations a priority.

"Once they start to accept that the sky is the limit, motivation and progress improve and praise can be justifiably given," she says.

But does it really work? Shanay Osborne, 16, a Year 11 pupil, is convinced that it does. "Being told you've done well is even better than a good mark," she says.

Shanay is most proud of a trophy she won last year for organising a primary school's sports day. "It made me feel really special and pushed me to work even harder."

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