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Examples of using recognition instead of rewards

One strength of using recognition instead of reward is that it avoids ‘activating the ego’. Our egos are activated when we feel that we have been judged either positively or negatively and it brings our emotions into play; we might feel proud if we have been judged in a positive light or defensive if we feel that we have been judged poorly. The negative implications of involving the ego when feeding back about academic work have long been recognised.

In Science Inside the Black Box Black and Harrison (2004) point out that

“…emphasising overall judgement by marks, grades, rank-order lists, and so on… helps to develop what researchers have called ego-involvement and its effects are negative. It discourages the low attainers, but it also makes high attainers avoid tasks if they cannot see their way to success, for failure would be seen as bad news about themselves rather than as an opportunity to learn.”

It is perhaps not surprising then that a similar effect might be noticed when we are supporting students to learn social skills such as how to behave appropriately in school.


Rewards. Better than rewards is Recognition with praise. Even better is Recognition with next steps.

Reward Recognition with some praise Recognition with some next steps
‘Well done.’ When student follows instructions ‘Well done for following my instructions.’ ‘I can see that you have followed my instructions quickly and quietly. Thank you. The next step is to do this every time.’
‘What lovely work!’ ‘This is nice and clear.’ ‘Your ideas are clear to read and understand. Keep it up.’
‘Well done for being nice today.’ ‘I noticed you treating your friends respectfully and thoughtfully today. Well done.’ ‘I noticed you treating your friends respectfully and thoughtfully today. I look forward to seeing more of that.’
‘Thank you for making the effort to be polite today.’ ‘I noticed that you stopped yourself from swearing just in time. Well done for making the effort.’ ‘I noticed that you stopped yourself from swearing just in time. This is good improvement. If you keep putting in real effort, it should get easier and easier with time.’
‘That’s a good graph. Brilliant.’ ‘Well done for correctly scaling your graph.’ ‘Your graph is correctly scaled. Try telling me what you did right to scale it correctly.’

Avoiding favouritism

Another advantage is that the feedback is factual so giving it cannot be seen as favouritism in the same way that giving praise or a reward can. It is more likely to lead to both the student who is being addressed and other students focusing on the behaviour in question rather than upon the outcome. Here is an example from a teacher:

‘During one lesson, several students had put their hands up at the same time to talk about a science experiment that we were planning. Florence put her hand down when Ahmed told me that the seed would not grow without water. I asked Florence, “Is that what you were going to say?”. When she nodded, I commented to her, “You must have been listening very carefully to what Ahmed said”. After that, I noticed that other students were more frequently avoiding repeating what others had already said, by actively listening.’

Consequences of prioritising rewards over recognition

Maybe you think that reward systems work better with older students who have a better understanding of how they work. However, I remember one very sad day when my daughter was fifteen. Two boys and two girls from each class in her year group were taken on a special reward trip to the adventure theme park Alton Towers; Ruth was not one of the chosen students on this occasion although her two best friends in class were. It is not that she did not receive plenty of other rewards and accolades; she was house captain, assistant librarian and had an impressive collection of certificates and badges.

However, there were only two places for girls in her class and on this occasion she was not one of the ones chosen. She dreaded the day for weeks and on the day itself went to school with a very heavy heart indeed. The reward system was in affect punishing her and, I should imagine, many other students who had done their best. It is worth noting however, that although this experience did not motivate Ruth to behave well in school (she was already doing that), neither did it lead to poor behaviour. Likewise, when another year my son was chosen to take part in a similar award trip I do not think that it affected his behaviour one way or another!

I wonder how much money the school ‘wasted’ on these reward trips each year?

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This article is from the free online course:

Managing Behaviour for Learning

National STEM Learning Centre