One of the reasons I love teaching is being able to visibly see my evolution of thought in my teaching philosophies, classroom strategies and discourse. Alfie Kohn, educational critic, consultant, mover-shaker, author of dozens of published works, has challenged and influenced my belief systems about traditional “classroom management” or discipline.
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I never fully subscribed to the Positive Behavior Support systems that are in place in many of our schools. What do they teach our children? Do this and get that. If they are respectful, they get a sticker. If they work hard, they get a toy. What is this teaching them? Certainly not any intrinsic motivation to do good simply for its own sake.
The reward for sharing their toys is seeing the joy on the face of their friend and playing together. The reward for putting forth effort is not the grade, but understanding as a result of their own perseverance.
Why do educators encourage students to make and reflect upon mistakes in their work and thinking processes, but unilaterally punish them for making mistakes in the behavior? When a child makes an error in their math computation, we sit down and help them figure it out. We should be seizing the same teaching opportunity to make our students better people by helping them solve their problems with challenging behavior.
Although I have gained new insight from many of Alfie Kohn’s writings, I feel like I still come up empty-handed. I find that he often articulates what is wrong with the educational system, but fails to give us a viable alternative.
We are cautioned by experts, such as Carol Dweck to minimize our praise and Alfie Kohn to remove the carrots and sticks from our classroom.
But where does that leave us educators to recognize students’ growth and maintain a positive classroom community?
I want my students to reflect on their own persistence and effort by making it a central part of the classroom dialogue and visibly recognizing their growth. To that end, I have adapted the effort card system developed by Chris Biffle, the founder of Whole Brain Teaching (WBT).
I have an effort chart posted in my classroom. Each student has their own effort card. All of the students start the beginning of the year as novices on white. Each time they are recognized for their effort, they get to punch their card. When they have accumulated 10 punches on their card, they move on to the next level and subsequently the next color on the chart. In order to reap the beauty of the system, it is essential that the teacher is not the only person entitled to recognize student effort. Students are invited to regularly recognize their peers for their efforts and students can recognize themselves, provided that they explain their reasoning. This practice encourages a positive class community. Teachers cannot have eyes and ears in every classroom interaction. So this form of peer to peer recognition allows teachers to become aware of efforts that the students make with each other, that was previously unbeknownst to them. As a class, we remain conscious to recognize effort, not ability.
Although some might see this system as a reward in itself, it does not provide students with a reward that is tangible, and I make that clear to my students. It allows students to track their own effort and subsequently, their social, emotional and academic growth.
Another ubiquitous system in schools around the globe is the behavior chart. You know the one…from stoplight colors, 3 strikes to Making Smart Choices. Although I believe that it is essentially a form of manipulation, I haven’t been able to shake it completely and permanently from my classroom. Yet, I have redesigned both my own and my students’ relationship to it. I only use it occasionally to have students monitor their choices. There is no reward for going “Above and Beyond”. Nor is there a punishment for poor choices. I have turned that into my teaching moment and my students’ opportunity to learn from their mistakes.