I have been closely studying the book, Made for Learning: How the Conditions of Learning Guide Teaching Decisions, by Debra Crouch and Brian Cambourne. In fact, I’m on my second time through because once isn’t enough to fully comprehend all of the facets of its immense importance. One message that is loud and clear, though, is that learning cannot be maximized if there is a mismatch between an educator’s operating theory of learning and their practice. As a literacy specialist and interventionist, I have been scrutinizing my teaching behaviors since my first read of this book. But I write this post today not specifically about literacy. Instead, I write today about rewards. Since I started reading this book, two interactions with students have been weighing heavily on my heart. One took place long ago, and one very recently. The two stories together have brought to the surface a dichotomy between pedagogy and practice that needs to be expressed.
Did I Earn This?
Fifteen years ago I started teaching a new 5th-grade student about reading and writing. She came to my “reading room” daily in a small group comprised of three students. She was, so I was told, “significantly below grade level.” This young learner hadn’t had a fair shot at growing up. There were many reasons, very good ones, for her to not be very concerned about learning to read. I had to work hard to gain her trust, to get a foot in the door, in order to make progress. And progress was made, with many bumps in the road along the way.
When the end of the year rolled around, I presented her with a do-it-yourself homemade certificate for effort and reading improvement. She looked at me and said, “Did I earn this? Or do you just give them to everyone?”
Taken aback, I told her, “I wouldn’t give it to you if I didn’t think you deserved it. You showed up every day and tried your best and you learned a lot about reading this year.”
She said, “I’ve never earned a certificate before. I think I’ll try to get a frame for it and hang it on my wall.”
Five years passed. I moved to another building in the district where some high school students would transfer busses at arrival and dismissal. One day, while I was greeting students arriving to school, I heard my name. It was my former student, now in high school, who spotted me while transferring busses. She ran up to me, hugged me and said, “I’ve never forgotten you. I still have your certificate on my wall and it reminds me to always try my best.”
It’s My Job to Be the Smart One.
Very recently, I was keeping watch over students during a transitional period when I heard an older student shout at a much younger student to, “Stop running!” The following conversation went like this:
Me: Thank you for caring so much about our expectations. What we really need is for you to be the one who is walking so our younger students will know what to do. You can leave it to me to help them walk, too.
Student: Nope. That’s not my job. My job is to be the smart one.
What Are We Rewarding?
The theory of behaviorism is centered in the idea that all behaviors can be acquired through conditioning. Over the last few years, I have increased my awareness of how the theory of behaviorism has impacted educational decisions and its effect on equity and learning. I stopped using a prize box. I stopped using reading logs. I stopped practicing anything that rewarded or micromanaged compliant behavior over constructive learning. I decided that if students did not see the purpose in what I wanted them to do, then it was my behavior or the task that needed to change, not the student. Debra Crouch (2020) explains that over time she began to see the difference between teaching and helping someone learn. I do not wish to condition my students to do what I want them to do. That presumptively implies that there is something wrong with the child. Instead, I want to help them learn.
Crouch and Cambourne (2020) explain that learning will not be maximized if practice does not match theory and that “Mismatches between theory and practices often surface and manifest in the language we use in our interactions with our learners.” I believe these mismatches also surface in the way in which we reward children. I doubt I would ever find an educator who wished compliance over construction, accuracy over the process, or passing over learning. And yet, all around are tokens for mastering skills, punch cards for green scores on computerized assessments, and goal setting for higher point totals for compliant behavior. If we set up a system of trinkets and tokens, the effort to achieve the goal will cease when the reward is received.
Imagine, though, if the reward was the sense of accomplishment for learning something new?
In the first story above, a student who was perceived as challenging and as a student who did not make as much growth as her peers, was rewarded with the recognition of her effort. That reward caused at least five more years of intentional effort and pride. As for the student in the second story, I don’t know what his specific achievements look like, but I bet if I did, I would see green scores, high levels of accuracy, and a lot of tokens and trinkets in his future. Our rewards, even in the form of our verbal praise, shape how our students think about themselves and others.
We spend a lot of time looking at who should get achievement rewards. I ask that we start looking at who isn’t getting these rewards and, more importantly, what is the impact on our student communities? If we believe in honoring students’ unique paths through education, then we we must reward all of those unique paths. Before we choose to reward, we must ask ourselves these questions:
- What message are we sending to the students who receive this reward?
- What message are we sending to the students who do not receive this reward?
- Does this reward reinforce our theory of teaching and learning?
Along the way, we may even realize that, when we help students learn, rather than teach, the pride of growth over the course of time is reward enough for everyone.
Crouch, D. & Cambourne, B. (2020). Made for Learning: How the Conditions of Learning Guide Teaching Decisions. Katonah, NY: Richard C. Owen Publishers, Inc.