Friday, 31 July 2015

Star of the Week – the black hole of praise

The ‘Star of the Week’ has become my new enemy. Having two daughters in a primary school, I am overly familiar with this behaviour strategy. Each Friday we wait to see if our one of our daughters has been lucky to achieve the glory that is ‘Star of the Week’. The day usually starts with one of them saying: ‘I hope I am this week’s ‘Star of the Week’. It then usually ends with disappointment, disillusionment and dissatisfaction. ‘Daddy, why haven’t I got it this time?’ A simple device to motivate and reward behaviour has become the bane of my life. 

There is a deeper problem under all of this. I am not a pushy parent that feels that his child is not getting the rewards he/she deserves – okay, maybe a bit. This following exchange might help to highlight what, I feel, is the problem:

Daughter 1: Dad, I didn’t get ‘Star of the Week’ again.

Me: That’s okay. We know you did your best. Not everyone can have it.

Daughter 1: Okay.

Me: Who got the award this week?

Daughter 1: Tim.

Me: What did he get it for?

Daughter 1: Good football skills.

Me: And, ummm… does he behave well in lessons?

Daughter 1: No he often get told off.

Daughter 2: He had it last month too.

There is an alarming pattern in schools and it does worry me. The extremities of behaviour are rewarded and those, like my daughters, whose behaviour fits in the middle of these two extremes of behaviour get minimal, tokenistic rewards, if they are lucky.  

The outstanding student gets heaps of praise, because wow they are so brilliant at what they do. Come on students aspire to be like these outstanding bright students. They are the best and we reward the best. Be like them and you will get rewards.

The misbehaving student gets rewarded, because, for once in his /her life, he/she deigned it possible for a teacher to give a lesson without constant interruption.  Like fairies, we turn poor behaviour into something good and positive, when in fact we are rewarding students for doing what is expected from every student.

The majority of students probably fit between these two extremes. What message is encoded in this? Be exceptionally good and you will be rewarded. Be naughty and then you will get rewarded.

I think this is a wide-spread problem and a particular problem within secondary schools. The students who don’t behave well often have more positive stamps / rewards than your average student.  I see lots of students who, I think, don’t get rewarded enough in schools. They become the disaffected, disengaged and disenchanted. We are simply sending the message to people that we reward extreme behaviour. When do we praise students in schools for following the expectations and doing what is expected of them? We praise those that go beyond expectations and we praise those that finally follow expectations, but we never praise those that do what is expected.

It is ironic that we moan about extreme behaviour and how disruptive it is in the classroom, yet we are positively promoting it within schools. We reward extreme behaviour and neglect model behaviour.

My daughters haven’t got ‘Star of the Week’ but I know that they are great students for teachers. They love learning. They have enthusiasm. They try their best. They want to do well. All they need is a little encouragement. The bullies, the vandals and the rude students have been positively encouraged to do well. Where is the encouragement for nice, quiet and usually female students? A sticker is dynamite in the primary classroom. That’s all it takes. But sadly some students only attain ‘The Black Hole of the Week’.    

Praise is so powerful and I think we underestimate the use of it in the classroom and its impact on individuals. Who is praised and who isn’t praised tells you a lot about a school?


  1. I, too, am sick of the meaningless token reward systems which operate in our schools. We have recently been asked to embed the 'star .... of the week' on our display boards for English, maths and science and I'm going to say 'no'! The best incentives are always the subtle bits of positive reinforcement we get rather than these phoney awards. I find it very difficult to remember to give out stickers, but I give many passing comments and praise to pupils and they always know I mean it and why.

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