Education Quandary: 'I am a teacher who feels out of step with my school's rewards-based culture. Children are applauded for every little thing they do'

Hilary Wilce
Wednesday 17 July 2013 05:21

Hilary's advice

I think you are right on the money. Years ago we realised that beatings and criticism were no way to motivate children – praise and encouragement did much better. The carrot rose. The stick, thank goodness, sank without trace.

But in many schools this message has now got muddled and pupils exist in a syrup of total approval. Robert gets a gold star for closing the door. Pippa is praised to the skies for producing an average maths work sheet. Ahmed has managed sit for a WHOLE TEN MINUTES on the mat without wriggling. Well done Ahmed!

Well, it may be that this is a truly stupendous achievement for Ahmed, who may have ADHD or other problems. If so... good for him.

But if he is a normal little boy, for whom sitting still is just a small matter of self-restraint, then ease up on the praise and reserve it for more worthy achievements.

It's all a question of balance, but a culture of constant praise and rewards doesn't help children develop a sense of wanting to do things well for themselves.

At least, that's the argument of an educational psychologist, Alan Mclean, in a new book called Motivating Every Learner (Sage Publications), and I'm with him all the way.

So I would say, run your classroom as you see fit, give praise when you feel it is due, and your children will respect you and develop much stronger self-motivation and inner guidance.

Readers' advice

Reading Alfie Kohn's excellent Punished by Rewards might help your colleagues to understand the destructive effects of current behaviourist management theory on the whole of our society, not just education.

If you are simply moaning about "praising children too much and ruining them" then the same book might give you a new basis for how to treat children as human beings, not objects to be managed and manipulated to suit adult convenience.

Rosemary Slater, London W5

At grammar school, circa 1962, I could not draw to save my life. In a physics class we were doing solar eclipses, and as an avid science fiction reader, I could have explained this perfectly, in scientific terms, but my unenlightened teacher insisted we had to draw it. My usual messy effort, kept me in for three detentions, after which I gave up, got an appalling year-end mark, and dropped science. I am sorry to learn that the stick is still seen by some as a better option than the carrot.

Linda Makins, Italy

A praise and rewards culture can feel like punishment when praise is withheld. But at the same time the school has a duty to be reasonable and not to trivialise praise, because children will soon see through this, and think they are not being taken seriously.

Robin Minney, Durham

Next Week's Quandary

What is so great about schools in Sweden that politicians keep telling us they have all the answers? Do they really have much higher standards and better results? And, if so, if there any reason why we can't do what they are doing over there, and get the same results?

Send your replies, or any quandaries you would like to have addressed, to h.wilce@btinternet. com. Please include your postal address. Readers whose replies are printed will receive a Collins Paperback English Dictionary 5th Edition. Previous quandaries are online at where they can be searched by topic.

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