Voice has a great piece up about getting support for the School of Visual and Performing Arts. In the comments for that post, one of our regular readers asked why a particular student was not being praised for brilliant work while other students were being praised for mediocre work. I tried to respond in the best way I know in a few paragraphs, but this is an important issue in education I have yet to address. It is one of the more challenging things a teacher, counselor, or administrator does on a regular basis. I'll split motivational theories into a few schools of thought to give you some idea.
The Old School Approach
How many times have you heard people complain about leagues where every kid gets a trophy and every kid in school gets an award? These are your old school motivators. Believe it or not, there is actually solid psychology behind it. Psychologists tell us their is intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation. The former is the most powerful and the most difficult to cultivate. It is the motivation that comes from within. When you think about it, very few people are truly intrinsically motivated. Most of us want something for our efforts (money, recognition, reciprocity).
The old school believes in limiting praise because kids (and adults) can be conditioned into expecting praise. So, if you only praise the great achievements of students then you avoid over praising the very good kids and you teach the mediocre to below average kids what it takes to get praise. In other words, it really means something when it comes.
The Token System
These folks believe in praising everyone. They are aware of the problem with students getting addicted to praise, so they either dish it out occasionally or they taper off as time goes on. The general idea with both is that the student will grow not to expect it every time, but they will get enough of them to keep them afloat.
The token system grew out of the old school system, but changed when adults noticed that some students were disengaged because they grew to understand that they would never be praised. So, if you praise small achievements occasionally you can coach them up to reaching the big goals. This system generally works if you strike the balance between over praise and the old school format.
The Triage System
This is more or less what is happening now. Triage was invented by the French as a way to deal with wounded soldiers. Those that are going to survive are largely ignored in favor of the ones that might die. Those that will die are comforted but not treated. It's a vulgar term, but it is practical in some settings. Essentially, you take the good kids that get support at home and you allow that home support to satiate them.
Therefore, praise is heaped on students considered "at-risk" in efforts to coax them through. This is particularly important in elementary when no one is considered a lost cause. In middle school and high school many of those same students are written off if we can not save them in elementary school. The unintended result is that kids obviously figure out what is happening. Some of them are savvy enough to figure out why they did not get an award even though their work is superior. Others cry about the unfairness.
The Group Theory
These are the so-called class awards. They are used primarily to inspire teamwork and accountability to a group larger than yourself. I have a problem with these because some groups are at an inherent disadvantage because of a smaller group within the class. We have class attendance awards at school. We are having an inherent clash of philosophies because the classes are largely segregated. Therefore, some classes have natural advantages.
So, when those classes with natural advantages win consistently what should be done? One option is to do nothing and teach the disadvantaged class to pick up the pace. Another is to alter the rules of the game to give them a chance to win. Interesting how this dilemma mirrors life. Of course, you probably could figure out where I stand on this one, but I'll leave it at that.
Each of these plans has one group they leave out. They are the forgotten group in just about all of our schools. Above average students usually get the shaft in the praise game. Their stuff is good, but not good enough to factor into the old school format. They get intermittent praise in the token system, but are seen as just fine in the triage system. Essentially, in all things attention they get the least of it. This is why seemingly intelligent (but not brilliant) kids sometimes slip through the cracks. We spend most of our time fawning over brilliance or at risk.
I generally find myself tip toeing through all of these methods. They all have their good points and bad points. Kids are smart enough to see through all of them. but if you are genuine they will work. For whatever reason, I am extremely sensitive to fairness. So, the group approach bothers me more often than not.