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.
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.