flickr photo shared by mrkrndvs under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

My school recently started the process of implementing a new instructional model. At the heart of this model is Howard Pitler and Bj Stone’s book A Handbook for Classroom Instruction That Works. Developed from the work of McREL and Robert Marzano, the book unpacks the different facets involved in embedding a culture of instruction. This then is the second post looking at effort and recognition. It often matters little what objectives are set or feedback is given if students approach their work with the wrong mindset. Playing an important part in motivating students, effort and recognition represent the how in regards to creating an ideal learning environment.


Central to the focus on effort is the work of Carol Dweck around mindset. For Dweck there are two mindsets which govern pretty much everything that we do. They are the fixed and growth mindsets. Those with a fixed mindset see things as black or white, either good or bad. They feel the need to always prove themselves and consider setbacks as failure. In opposition, the growth mindset embraces failure as an area for improvement, effort is rewarded and setbacks are seen as an opportunity for future learning.  Importantly, a growth mindset focuses on process, rather than outcome. This means re-imaging success to highlight improvement over time, rather than where they may sit in regards to some preconceived standards.

A part of this change in mindset is a celebration of hard work over time, what Malcolm Gladwell talks about in regards to the 10,ooo hours rule. Also, there is a focus on autonomy and how this sense of care influences engagement and persistence. Central to this is ongoing emphasis on effort when planning and preparing. This might include incorporating relevant stories, videos, articles, and discussions throughout the year. Larry Ferlazzo has a good collection of examples from film and television. In addition to this, it is important to provide models and structures to support the development of growth mindsets, whether this be planning documents, guides to studying, opportunities for reflection and rubrics to support understandings. At the heart of all of this is creating a common use of language which helps link work and success. This though can be easier said than done.


Associated with language and effort is an emphasis on recognition and praise. Connected with objectives and feedback, this is how to support students working toward achieving mastery of their goals. A focus on the goals not only helps personalise the learning, but also drives learning.

With such an approach, the challenge is not to recognise the wrong attributes, such as talent and intelligence. Singling these out often leads to people shying away from activities in which they may face failure, such as goal setting. As Pitler and Stone point out,

Praise can provide students with the motivation to continue working and striving to achieve at a high level, or it can create confusion and competition.

It is therefore important to highlight achievement, however great or small. This might be through the use of various concrete, symbolic tokens, such as stickers, coupons, awards, treats, or other types of prizes. However, such rewards are best aligned with routine tasks and rote learning.

In his take on the problem, Alfie Kohn questions the worth of all practices of carrots and sticks to motivate people. He does however provides four practical suggestions to blunt the damage that may be called:

  1. Don’t praise people, only what people do.
  2. Make praise as specific as possible.
  3. Avoid phony praise.
  4. Avoid praise that sets up a competition

In the end, like all initiatives, we are left with the challenge of developing sustained practice. Alex Quigley touches on the complexity of strategy and solution required to change culture, something that goes beyond a motivational assembly and a few inspiring videos. A quick, well targeted and stealthy approach may be more effective, one focused on metacognition and self-regulation.

Although Pitler and Stone argue that effort, and recognition thereof, is the only thing that we can have an influence on, Alfie Kohn points out that this may in fact be an example of fixed mindset. Kohn contends that to merely focus on effort without considering the wider conditions in which they occur does more harm than good.

An awful lot of schooling still consists of making kids cram forgettable facts into short-term memory. And the kids themselves are seldom consulted about what they’re doing, even though genuine excitement about (and proficiency at) learning rises when they’re brought into the process, invited to search for answers to their own questions and to engage in extended projects. Outstanding classrooms and schools — with a rich documentary record of their successes — show that the quality of education itself can be improved. But books, articles, TED talks, and teacher-training sessions devoted to the wonders of adopting a growth mindset rarely bother to ask whether the curriculum is meaningful, whether the pedagogy is thoughtful, or whether the assessment of students’ learning is authentic (as opposed to defining success merely as higher scores on dreadful standardized tests).

Adding to this argument, Peter DeWitt suggests that as teachers we need to learn to stop being so fixed in our own approaches and that this is in fact the real problem. Ironically, Dewitt suggests, teachers are in fact the biggest inhibitors of students developing a growth mindset as they fail to allow any sense of autonomy when it comes to learning. What is needed is an approach that goes beyond mere lip service and changes things from the ground on up.

So what about you? What is the place of effort and recognition in your classroom? How do you create an environment in which students are continually reminded that they are capable of learning the most challenging content and processes? As always, comments welcome.

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creative commons licensed ( BY-SA ) flickr photo shared by mrkrndvs

The other day while getting material for my Easter bonnet I bumped into an ex-student. I taught her six years ago. We chatted as she served me. She asked how my daughter was going and whether I was still at same school. She then told me that she had started university this year, studying science at one of Melbourne’s top establishments. She then said something that startled me, “who would have thought?” We kept on chatting, before she moved onto her next customer, but it was this comment that really stuck. Obviously, she didn’t think that I thought highly of her and that her success was almost in spite of her teachers. It made me consider two things: firstly, how much do we restrict students with our perceptions of them? While secondly, what growth and potential is within my own classes that is left unfulfilled?

In a recent post, Steve Wheeler touched upon the phenomena of labelling. That act of hardening our attitudes and feeling that we know students, subsequently predicting what they will do next. As he wonders:

How often do we label our students? He’s very bright, she’s brilliant…. he’s not such a hard worker, and that one over there is a real trouble maker…. Often we spend just a short amount of time with our students before we build an impression of their characters.

He discusses two self-fulfilling consequences of labelling:

  • The Pygmalian effect where students are ascribed with great expectations often perform better.
  • The Golem effect where students seen as lazy and time-wasters will under perform.

The most dangerous thing that we do though is handover from one teacher to another. This is often where such habits are fostered and perpetuated. Another situation where habits are fostered is when we teach students from one year to the next.

Even if the subject may change and the student grow with their learning, it is so easy to fall into the trap of preconceived ideas. I was recently faced this problem with my Robotics class. I had taught some students for three years, taking them for intervention amongst other things. As I have reflected elsewhere, I had decided to simply let students make. One of the biggest challenges with this was letting go. This was not only my sense of control and ownership of the classroom, but also my preconceived ideas about students in general.

These ideas were challenged early on when one student decided to start wondering around the room. Instead of automatically requesting that the student in question return to his seat, I stopped and watched. What happened next was amazing. He went from one group to the next checking out what people were doing. Talking with them, helping them out, while getting ideas off others. He finally returned back to his team re-enthused and attacked the problem of making a fast car. Six years ago when I started teaching Robotics, this would never have happened. I would have sprouted something about safe learning environment and students’ right to learn. Feeling that as duty. Yet, ironically, in letting the student in question walk around he learnt so much more. I don’t think that this would have worked six years ago because that was not the culture I created in the classroom. My next challenge is to help students celebrate such moments themselves. To recognise the untapped potential that they come to class with each and every day.

I am not going to say that I never box students. In my view we all have fixed moments now and then. However, when I do, I would like to think that there are always those around who are pulling me up on it. For at the end of the day, learning takes a village and working together we are always better.

If you enjoy what you read here, feel free to sign up for my monthly newsletter to catch up on all things learning, edtech and storytelling.