Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Prizes Are No Way to Reward Pupils, Expert Says

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Prizes Are No Way to Reward Pupils, Expert Says

Article excerpt

Public praise causes 'collateral damage' to children, he 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, said Marvin Berkowitz, professor of character education at the University of Missouri-St Louis.

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

To illustrate how bizarre he found common reward systems, Professor Berkowitz asked delegates at the Character Scotland conference in Glasgow (bit.ly/CharacterScotland) whether they would use them at home with their own children. Would they plaster posters illustrated with words like "respect" and "responsibility" on the walls? Would they start each day by reading out a pithy quote or convene the family once a month to announce who had shown the best character?

"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 walk around your house with little slips of paper in your pocket and every time your child does something good, you give them one and at the end of the week, if they have five or six of them, they get a pencil that sparkles and smells like strawberries?"

This was not "deep, powerful stuff", Professor Berkowitz explained - that came from role models and "the values of people who are significant to you in your life".

"Educators, for some reason, instinctively feel like they have to give children tangible rewards and ideally to do it with an audience," he said.

Pam Maras, professor in social and educational psychology at the University of Greenwich, agrees that school rewards can be ineffective. "If you reward the good and punish the bad, like Pavlov's dogs, then change only really occurs in the specific situation," she said. "What you want them to do is to generalise the behaviour to other contexts.

"If you have a sign saying 'respect', you're probably in a school where people are modelling good behaviour anyway."

The praise problem

But Sarah Morey, assistant headteacher at North Leamington School in Warwickshire, argued that people rewarded children at home as well as at school - just as she had done when her son recently achieved an excellent school report. …

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