Extract: The Slightly Awesome Teacher – Dominic Salles on Reward and Praise

In this extract from The Slightly Awesome Teacher, Dominic Salles talks about reward and praise and how to make it effective.


“Praise for students may be seen as affirming and positive, but a number of studies suggest that the wrong kinds of praise can be very harmful to learning. For example, Dweck (1999), Hattie & Timperley (2007). (My italics)

Stipek (2010) argues that praise that is meant to be encouraging and protective of low attaining students actually conveys a message of the teacher’s low expectations. Children whose failure was responded to with sympathy were more likely to attribute their failure to lack of ability than those who were presented with anger.

“Praise for successful performance on an easy task can be interpreted by a student as evidence that the teacher has a low perception of his or her ability. As a consequence, it can actually lower rather than enhance self-confidence. Criticism following poor performance can, under some circumstances, be interpreted as an indication of the teacher’s high perception of the student’s ability.” (ibid)”

The key, then, is to praise a response to challenge. I can square this with my moral purpose, because I instinctively feel that getting students to accept challenge is my job. If I’ve taught my students to accept challenge, and this lesson lasts into adulthood.

You Won’t Change Behaviour Through Bribery

Every school I have ever taught in has many of the poorest behaved students achieving among the highest rewards in a year group. Lazy teaching, not lazy teachers, rewards students for simply choosing not to disrupt lessons. But this sends completely the wrong message to the misbehaving student. It tells them that you do not think they can behave, and that indeed you expect them to relapse soon. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy. And of course it undermines the whole reward system in your school.

Rewarding challenge and learning will stop your natural focus on the content of what you teach. Instead, you will ask yourself, ‘how will my students master this content?’ And this is the same question as ‘what learning behaviours will my students need to master this content?’ Having to reward will make you a better teacher.

Challenge as a way to think about rewarding learning behaviour

Have you ever spoken to a student and found that they really didn’t want to succeed? I haven’t. I have spoken to plenty of students who didn’t think they could, were scared of trying, and who thought the teacher didn’t like them, or that other students in the class were the problem, or who had put in an effort that wasn’t enough, and so become demoralised. The only way to change this is to give the students challenges that you show them how to meet. This is why I have such a problem with the differentiated learning objective we met earlier: all will, most will, some will. All will? How challenging can that possibly be? Worse, what is the learning behaviour you are encouraging?

“I am setting you a minimum standard, and it is ok if you only reach that mimimum”. That is an un-learning behaviour, it is anti-learning.

Instead set up a challenge: “This is difficult. But I am still going to ask you to try to master it.”

Then ask the student to help someone else figure out why they are still finding it too difficult. Then help them overcome this. Peer teaching is hard, but if you ask your student how they feel about peer assessment, they usually reply that they don’t like it. Why? Because they don’t treat it as a challenge. They make a simplistic comment that helps no one – ‘you could have written in more detail’. But what if you asked them to give a specific example of what could be improved, and the words ‘so that’ to explain why it will help. ‘Your conclusion needs to explain why the increase in temperature led to an increase in volume in the gas so that Miss Jones can see you understand cause and effect. Say what units this was measured in.’ Model the feedback you want students to give, then reward it.

Narrating what you want

Another way of rewarding behaviour is to narrate what you want, by describing it as it happens: “three seconds, excellent. Waiting for two more hands to go up. Thank you.”

If a student extends an answer, moves their thinking, or the thinking of the class on, praise them. Articulate what it is they have done – “you’ve revealed a problem in our original thinking”, “you’ve solved that in a new way, and helped us see a different way of doing it”, “you’ve interpreted that in a way I hadn’t thought of before.” Again, these are the aspects of learning behaviour that you want to encourage and model, so call attention to them.

These are the right kinds of praise. They don’t tell the student that they have succeeded because they are clever. (Dweck tells us this is counter productive, as the moment they encounter difficulty, or failure, their self image is attacked – it means that they are not clever).

Dominic Salles is Assistant Principal at Chipping Campden School. A teacher for 24 years, he believes current teacher training, the oppressive climate in too many schools and ‘inspirational’ CPD robs you of the chance to be slightly awesome, and makes you feel guilty for not being perfect. He wants to show you how to help your students fly, to love your job and have time to live a fulfilled life.

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  1. Mark Simmons

    Thanks for this Dominic, I think that the identification and encouragement of desired learning behaviours through strategic noticing/reinforcement is key. Emphasis on reciprocal responsibility for each others’ learning may help with naming these desired behaviours and maximise learning from peers?

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