How Gold Stars Ruin Stuff


I think that a lot of what we do in primary schools as praise-giving actually perpetuates quite negative messages and can be demotivating to many pupils. I appreciate that schools need systems, though I think a problem in many schools – my own included – is that for a very long time we have done a lot of things because we have thought they are good things to do. At the time, we didn’t seek to qualify or quantify their effectiveness, and now that they are embedded, they are just ‘there’ so we just do them.

Gold Stars

I am not a fan of Gold Stars and for multiple reasons.First of all, I myself am forgetful and inconsistent. My mind flutters around quite a lot and whilst I am capable of teaching good well thought out lessons which I can allow to tiptoe into new and unexpected areas, I rarely decide to wander over to my cupboard midway through a child’s explanation of climate change in order to validate them with a gold sticker. I think that my listening and nodding, verbally praising them and then discussing their point further with the class is a better reward. I tend to forget about the star system almost all of the time, which is crap for my kids, because it means they miss out on rewards that kids in other classes get as a consequence of having loads of stars.

Gold Stars are problematic too because they are given out for so many different things. We have sets in our primary school for Literacy and Maths. I teach Set 1 Maths and rarely give stars. The Set 1 Literacy teacher also does not give out stars. What this means is that kids who happen to be in the top sets get hardly any, and when it gets to Christmas, they are often still in single figures. Some teachers give stars pretty much every day to pretty much every kid. Some teachers give stars for consistently good behaviour. Some give stars to placate potentially volatile pupils. Some give stars to make the child sitting next to the star-receiver behave. Some give stars for good handwriting. Some for homework. Some give them because they don’t want their wrist slapped by management for having barren reward charts!

Essentially, because teachers can give stars for anything, the system is really imbalanced and routinely seems unjust. Whilst the oftentimes poorly behaved chap might have deserved his 10 stars this week for his efforts to improve his behaviour, not hit people and focus more in lessons, it seems odd that he is the one winning certificates when my pupils who are simply just excelling placidly receive nothing, because I am crap at giving out stickers I don’t particularly value.

Gold star systems like these have some negative effects.

1) Kids who simply get on with stuff and obediently follow instructions are often overlooked by teachers like myself who are very star-stingey and inconsistent.

2) Kids who are very vocal and extrovert receive more stars than those who are more reticent and hesitant. This is not to say that the more confident children are learning more or behaving better; if I quietly had a word with one of the quiet ones, they might well have incredible insights. Regrettably, I do not get to solicit responses to every question from every child personally, so I most often rely on feedback that is quite public. As such, kids who make themselves visible tend to be rewarded. The gold star is rewarding an aspect of personality more than behaviour or learning.

3) Kids who veer between good and bad behaviours often find themselves pebbledashed with stars, because the teachers are keen to make sure that any steps possible are taken to keep the potentially misbehaving child on track. These gold stars function like nicotine patches – when you see a volatile character starting to get a bit aggy, go and slap one on their arm.

4) Teachers who rely excessively on external reward systems like gold stars may well replace good quality specific feedback with a shiny adhesive. “Well done, two gold stars” replaces “Well done, it was brilliant that you looked after that crying child for Year 2” or “Well done, you worked so hard on that triptych” or “Well done, you have learned to form the letter b correctly.”

5) I hesitate to make another addiction reference, but many children can become obsessed with star-attaining more than the learning and actions that stars are meant to signify. Some kids sit there waiting agitatedly for their next fix. I would rather a child likes reading in class because they are learning to appreciate Spike Milligan, not because they are hoping to be spotted with book in hand by me, the omnipresent sticker man who can satisfy their gluey craving.

6) Gold stars suggest that learning is, in itself, not enough to motivate the children. I am under no illusion that the correct use of a range of adverbial phrases in an instructional text is like party time for the pupils. I am not suggesting that I expect all kids to come to school with a desire to draw annotated diagrams of Newtonmeters. But I do think it is a shame that our teaching can be so dry that we need to reward children repeatedly during lessons just for sticking with it. Partly this could be a problem of a dry curriculum, and partly due to stale teaching, but either way, I find it sad that we need to vajazzle (sorry) our lessons like this.

7) Gold stars are the end point, suggesting that learning, knowledge and skills are all stepping stones to some external reward. To a degree this is good preparation for the way many people view university – get a BA so that you can get a graduate job. I think that it devalues our teaching to present it as a prelude to a gold star, which is in turn a prelude to a plunge into a really crap goody bag filled with novelty sharpeners etc. Knowledge, skills and understanding are the purpose of being in school, and if kids focused more on these things, they would not need the Pavlovian pacification of a Gold Star to tell them they should carry on.


4 thoughts on “How Gold Stars Ruin Stuff

  1. As ever, a compelling read. I have a few of my own thoughts to add:

    1. As a teacher (secondary & A level) I used the ‘Gold, Silver, Bronze’ award system in my class and year on year pupils loved it and I learned to enjoy it, too. Pupils reminded me about the award each lesson and it was a specific focus on learning. It became a feature of the lesson. It was mentioned in the year book as a happy memory . I used funky praise stickers briefly, you know, a crocodile saying ‘well done!’, but the hipster level was so low, I had to bin them. Gold stars rule, back in the day.

    2. Only last week my Editor awarded me a virtual gold star for meeting a deadline and I was over the moon for about 2 hours. This is because I am deprived of praise in my work setting and it was a nostalgic reminder of the importance of praise for adults.

    3. I use gold stars in HE….more evidence that I am not of the academy?

    1. Morning! Tell me more about your Gold Silver Bronze system – how did it work and what did it reward? Veeeery interesting (and amusing) to hear of you receiving a gold star and how significant it felt in the professional tundra of praiselessness.
      A system I prefer more is a carousel of lunch meetings where I invite 4 or 5 kids in for lunch and we just have some chatty time and it is a clear opportunity to praise what they are doing well in a less public setting. I also like it when kids suggest each other for rewards and explain what they did to deserve them, though this needs to be stage managed to ensure it doesn’t become a nepotistic friendship thing. When I have had it working well, it has been one of the nicest things, seeing kids who are not necessarily friends talking each other up and recognising each other’s successes.

  2. Fantastic points
    I often feel that it’s all a bit pointless ( no pun intended )
    It increases workload if you attempt to be consistent and often it is done out of fear of not doing it.*
    It would be great if there was evidence that these systems are actually counter productive which I suspect they are.
    I am a high school teacher by the way. Yr 10 and 11 are not interested in ‘points’
    And actually even yr 8 have lost the enthusiasm.
    So in reality only yr 7 are keen and competitive regarding ‘points’
    *I have noticed in the past that even if you follow a time consuming school policy on rewards it can still do you no good and the maverick teacher who ignores these distractions gets praise.
    An honest debate is needed.
    Unfortunately many schools have an admin rewards policy because they consider that ofsted expects it.

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