`My advice about recognition and rewards is: stop it'

17th July 2015 at 01:00
Public praise and prizes harm children, character expert warns

Popular school systems for rewarding good behaviour are actually harming children, according to an internationally renowned psychologist and expert in character education.

Prize-giving assemblies, motivational posters and gifts for children who do well are "killing" classroom culture, according to Marvin Berkowitz, professor of character education at the University of Missouri-St Louis.

Speaking in Scotland, Professor Berkowitz said that such schemes were shown by research to be counterproductive and that positive role models were a far more powerful and benign influence on children's characters.

`Killing classroom culture'

To illustrate how strange common reward systems were, Professor Berkowitz asked delegates at the Character Scotland conference in Glasgow (bit.lyCharacterScotland) whether they would use them with their own children.

"How many of you went out and made these cute little signs to rename the spaces in your house, things like `caring kitchen', `benevolent bathroom', `tactful toilet'?" he asked. "How many of you walked around your house with little slips of paper in your pocket and every time your child did something good, you gave them one, and at the end of the week, if they had five or six of them, they would get a pencil that sparkled and smelled like strawberries?"

This was not "deep, powerful stuff", explained Professor Berkowitz. It didn't come from role models and "the values of people who are significant to you in your life".

He added: "Educators for some reason instinctively feel like they have to give children tangible rewards and ideally do it with an audience."

But if good behaviour was highlighted in class or at an assembly, he said, "at this point everybody hates [that child], she's uncomfortable, [the teacher is] killing the culture of my classroom".

He continued: "My elegant advice to you about rewards and recognition is: stop it.Replace it with individual affirmation. All I have to do is go up to [my pupil], put my hand on her shoulder and say `I saw what you did. That was so kind. Keep it up'.no audience, no one else, walk away - and there's no collateral damage that we get from the other stuff."

Actions leave a mark

Professor Berkowitz also argued that there was no point in a school professing the importance of character if the adults who worked there - including non-teachers - failed to embody good character or show awareness that their actions left a mark on children. "Some of those marks are temporary and wash away.some are scars that will throb with pain for the rest of the child's life," he said.

But according to Susan Quinn, education convener for the EIS teaching union and a former primary headteacher, teachers should be trusted to identify what worked best for each child. This would always involve a mix of formal rewards for good work and behaviour, and more informal approval, she said.

"It's part of preparing people for life - employers use private and public means to celebrate employees' successes," Ms Quinn said. "For some people, doing it quietly might well motivate them, but others need something more public."

Ms Quinn added that assemblies rewarding not just traditional academic achievements but also "positive character" were a way of encouraging parents who might otherwise be difficult to reach to come into the school.

And, the education convener said, she had seen parents putting motivational messages up at home and employers often did so at work. It was not a practice peculiar to schools.

Professor Berkowitz revealed that when he asked educators about their best and worst teachers, he found that the latter had often inflicted some form of public humiliation. For some, the memory could induce tears even after 50 years, and yet the teacher at fault "probably did not remember the statement a half hour later".

"It's OK to let a child know how frustrated, how angry, how disappointed you are with them, but you should not have an audience - that is devastating for a child," he said.

Education without a focus on character was "menacing", he insisted, reminding delegates that many of the most notorious Nazis were highly educated. "There are people all over the world who are trying to do horrendous harm to innocent others; I would rather they were illiterate, stupid, unmotivated - I don't want them being smart, literate people," he said.

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