There has been much written (and discussions and research) about the negative effects of extrinsic rewards tied to intrinsic motivation. We put a lot of emphasis into making learning fun and relevant, but then we revert backwards by slapping a reward on it via grades, GPA, rankings, and awards assemblies. Awards assemblies typically focus on achievement, but can focus on character. Even so, what is the true value in holding a large group awards assembly? Parents wait for an hour or more to hear their child’s name and the child painstakingly waits for their piece of paper. Can we recognize students in a meaningful, frequent, and consistent way and for actions that have real value? We can, and it starts with ditching the awards assembly.

Here are 3 steps to get there

  1. Move from High Expectations to Inspirations

Research (Dweck and others) concludes that when parents praise their children on effort (giving, sharing, working hard, commitment, etc.) rather than ability, they become more intrinsically motivated. Just as awards are based in extrinsic motivation, teacher expectations for students are also laden with the same. “If you do this, then you’ll get that.” Typically statements are very teacher-centric (see below). These “carrot-driven” statements are made from a place of compliance, with no connection to the student’s motivation or identity. What if we move from high expectations to inspirations? Students are more intrinsically motivated if they’re inspired to act in a way that exemplifies their identity. The praise communicates that the actions themselves (and the person doing it) contribute to the greater good and not necessarily because it appeases the teacher. The table below provides a few examples on how we can begin to change our daily language with students:

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2.Classroom “likes”

Whether we want to admit this or not, we pay attention to the number of likes we receive on social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Voxer, etc.). Students like to receive praise for their efforts and contributions in class. A practical strategy: teachers create hearts or thumbs up cut-outs to give to students. The teacher would continually model how these likes are given. When a student does something that warrants recognition, the teacher picks up a “like” and writes on the back of it. It is presented to the student 1:1 or in a small group to model affirming statements for other students.  “You’re a good citizen because you shared your pencil with Johnny.” “You’re an honest person because you told me the truth about what happened in the cafeteria.” “You’re a hard worker and push through challenges.” Students will pick up on the fun and will join in on giving out “likes.”

3. #bragtags

Affirming students is important and therefore should not only be done in a meaningful way, but in a meaningful environment where the awesome is taking place: the classroom. A strategy to do this digitally is via a classroom Twitter hashtag where the teacher tweets “brags” about students’ efforts, work, and performance. Additionally, this hashtag should be leveraged by parents as they brag about how the learning from the classroom is carrying over to the home. This can also be done face-to-face. When students share to an audience (projects, presentations, student-led conferences, etc.), those times are great opportunities for teachers to give out brags to students.

Let’s face it, the primary reasons for awards assemblies is for the parents. Parents grew up with it and they expect it for their children. Every parent wants their child to feel recognized and affirmed, as they should. Praise can be very effective if it’s focused positively on the student’s character and when it clearly connects the actions (effort, 21st cent skills, perseverance, etc.) to the outcomes (effect, performance, etc.). Let’s provide students with the recognition, affirmation, praise, and feedback they not only deserve, but also need.


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