Praise where it’s due

For regular readers of this blog, I’m afraid this post has nothing to do with maths. Writing helps clarify thoughts and that is my main reason for doing it. If others read it and find these clarified thoughts have some resonance, that makes me happy. If you feel moved to comment on these thoughts and add your own experiences, then that is really powerful as it hopefully moves us all forward.

This post is about school-wide systems for praise and sanctions. I am not SLT, and this year I don’t have a Pastoral leadership role. The reason I am involved in this is because I am a member of a Teaching and Learning Focus group.  For the last couple of years, my school has run these groups in the directed time after school that traditionally might have been used for one-size-fits-all twilight INSETs.  At the beginning of the year, teachers self-select which group to join, each group being led by a member of SLT. There are about 6 meetings throughout the year with the idea being that a particular issue is discussed, researched and some form of action taken.  It’s a form of Action Research. From my perspective this has worked well this year.  I see this as the leadership of the school saying, “OK, we do lots of good things here, but it’s not perfect. What can we improve? And how? Work as a team, do some research, consult with other staff and come back with a proposal.”

As a team, we are now at the proposal stage.  I think it still needs some work and more consultation with staff.  We haven’t done the “hearts and minds” bit yet.  If we don’t do a good job of convincing the entire staff body that this is a good idea, the whole thing will have been a waste of time.  My school is not the sort of organisation that issues diktats from senior management, I’m glad to say.  Organisations that do rarely achieve the change they require. People may pay lip service the new initiative for a while, but if you cannot convince professional adults (i.e. teachers!) that this is something worth doing, it simply won’t happen.

So first, let’s look at our current “Praise and Concern” system. I’m going to start with “Concern” because that is the bit we are not proposing to change, but it’s important to understand the context.  As all schools do, we have a behaviour policy.  I won’t go through the detail of it here, but it basically involves warnings, detentions and removal from the classroom to a “referral room”.  Each of these “concerns” is to be recorded on SIMS by the teacher who issues the sanction.  There is a workload implication here, but it is generally viewed as something worth doing.  Recording the data centrally is important because it enables other staff (i.e. form tutor, head of year, etc.) to get an overview of issues pertaining to an individual student occurring across different subjects.  It’s particularly useful for highlighting frequent low-level transgressions which might not result in detentions but which could be impacting learning.

At the moment, the same system is used for Praise.  These are also recorded on SIMS. There are a bunch of categories and, as with Concerns, the teacher is expected to write a sentence or two of comments.  Every few weeks, a Praise and Concern report is sent to tutors. This report lists, by student, each Praise and each Concern.  How form tutors use this information varies widely, with some displaying it all in front of the form, some displaying just the praise bit, some having individual conversations and some not sharing it directly with students but just taking note of it for themselves. The raw numbers are also shared in end of term reports that go home to parents.

We feel that the main problem with this system is the idea that Praise and Concern are seen as two sides of the same coin. They are not.  Often students look at their net score (i.e. Praises minus Concerns) and I know of students who have asked for Praises to offset a certain number of Concerns. An evident issue is that it is often the students with the poorest behaviour who end up with the most praises “Well done, you’ve got your pen out, have a praise”. That sort of thing.  And the quiet ones who do what is expected of them day in, day out get ignored.  That is borne out in the data and from focus groups with students – they know what’s going on.

It is also apparent that there is a lack of consistency about how often and how many teachers issue Praise.  Some ignore it completely and use their own systems. Others use it frequently including issuing whole-class praise, which is nearly as bad as whole-class detentions in my view.

In parallel with Praise and Concern, we also have a system of housepoints.  This culminates at the end of the year with the inter-house Sports Day (still my favourite day of the year!).  Lots of points are awarded on Sports Day but these add to points collected throughout the year by individual students.  Housepoints are more personal to students.  They write them in their planners when they are awarded and each term the form tutor “collects” them and enters them into a central system.  Our hypothesis is that because students write the reason for the Housepoint in their planner and then keep a record of them, these are more meaningful and motivating.  From focus groups with students we believe that this is true for lower years (Year 7-8) but house points are less valued by older students (Year 10 up).

In looking for something better, we have reviewed educational research on the role of praise in teaching.  We were looking at the role of extrinsic rewards impacting on intrinsic motivation (here and here), and on how to make praise “purposeful” (here).  We defined purposeful praise as praise which would motivate a love of learning and challenge our students.

This is closely linked to ideas of growth mindset.  How, when and what praise is given for can impact on a students’ mindset but it’s a highly complex picture and difficult to draw general conclusions to apply in the classroom.

However, among our group there was a fairly close consensus on the following:

  • We should praise the process and the effort observed in the moment, not the individual.
  • Extrinsic rewards (e.g. stickers, housepoints, postcards home, etc.) have a place but need to be valued by students and need to be issued for something specific, for going “above and beyond”
  • Narrative, personal feedback given to students is more likely to motivate and challenge them than extrinsic reward
  • We need to be more fair and notice and acknowledge those who are quietly engaged in the struggle of learning.
  • The current housepoint system should be relaunched but there should be no attempt to track students’ individual scores.  You are collecting them for your house!
  • Centrally collecting data on praise issued is not valuable (although collecting it on Concerns is).

I would be really interested to hear from any others on their perspectives.  How do the praise and sanctions systems sit together in your school? What do you do that works particularly effectively?  Either comment below, or get in touch by e-mail (mark.horley@gmail.com)

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2 thoughts on “Praise where it’s due”

  1. A school I worked in once thought the praise system wasn’t being used enough. “Make sure you praise at least three people each lesson”, came the suggestion. 🙄 it was an ace school though! Praise, motivation and growth mindset are all closely linked I feel, and any policy risks directing students to performance goals rather than learning goals so it’s great you’ve considered this so carefully. Interesting read, thanks. Has made me wonder why my school doesn’t have some joint, self selected action groups.

    Like

    1. Thanks for your comment. Yes, praise should be natural, not forced. And I think a good principle is to praise the behaviour or the deed, not the person.

      Like

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