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Book Excerpt: “Letting Go of the Punish, Behave, Reward Cycle”

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I’m lucky today to publish an excerpt from a top-notch book, Passionate Learners: Giving Our Classrooms Back to Our Students, by Pernille Ripp.

I’ve referred readers to Pernille’s blog a number of times over the past few years.

Pernille is a 5th grade teacher in Middleton, Wisconsin where she gets to inspire students to take control of their learning journey on a daily basis. She is also the creator of the Global Read Aloud, a literacy initiative that has connected more than 200,000 students since 2010 through the use of technology. Her work has been featured by Edutopia, Education Week, School Library Journal, MiddleWeb and Learning & Leading magazine.

Pernille is actively involved in furthering professional development worldwide through the creation of EdCampMadWI. She writes regularly about what she’s learning at Blogging Through the Fourth Dimension.

Here’s the excerpt:

Letting Go of the Punish, Behave, Reward Cycle 

Adapted from “Letting Go of the Punish, Behave, Reward Cycle,” Chapter 7 of Passionate Learners: Giving Our Classrooms Back to Our Students.

By Pernille Ripp

“Put your name on the board!” Those words spoken in a very stern voice accompanied by a teacher look was enough to whip the toughest student into shape in my room.

Except when it didn’t, which for me was enough times to make me wonder: could my discipline systems really be discarded and replaced with…nothing?

THEN: The Teacher as Lawgiver 

If you had come by my room during my first few years of teaching you would have seen the sticks in cups or names on the board with checks (sometimes double checks) — and plenty of stern teacher looks to go around. I was doing exactly what I had been taught in college, exerting my control as the main authority figure, and if students misbehaved, then there was going to be some form of punishment.

Oh, there were plenty of rewards as well. If students didn’t move their stick or get their name on the board for a week, then they were entered into a drawing for a pizza lunch with me. At the end of the month, if they didn’t have their name in my book for failing to turn in their homework, they could also enter the drawing. When I finally drew names, five lucky students would eat some pizza with the teacher.

Confused? I was! I could hardly keep track of all those names, checks, and punishments. Gold stars, super-duper stickers, tri-colored cups, names on the board…I have done it all. And when one reward/punishment system failed, another one took over. Never one to sit and reflect that perhaps it was the system that was faulty and not just that the students grew tired of it, I persisted with carrots and sticks as if my very life depended on it.

I thought: tight discipline = teaching success. What’s more, those stickers meant I cared. That Awesome board where A+ work was proudly displayed gave students something to strive for. That certificate I awarded for an A on your math test meant you were smart and that other students should look up to you. Right?

Oh, I thought I was clever. I knew how to motivate, and after all, what could a little reward do that would possibly hurt the child? Then I read Alfie Kohn’s book Punished by Rewards and realized just how wrong I had been. Those papers on the awesome board did nothing to create a learning community in our classroom. Instead, my bright display acted as a great divide, sorting students into two simplistic groups: “can” and “cannot.”

Those stickers I doled out for anything above 90% were not a cheerful way to celebrate achievement but rather a glaring marker showing which students were most willing to learn the way the teacher wanted them to. By perpetually focusing negative energy on the same students (who were often the ones having their name singled out somehow already), I was truly just adding to their self doubt.

While I believe in discipline for all students, I also believe in compassion, and that philosophy simply was not fitting in with my chosen systems. So I did the only thing I knew how; I threw it all out again.

This time, however, instead of hunting for a new system I decided to detox myself, start the year with no system for reward and punishment and instead strive to create a classroom community where students just knew what the expectation is.

I was terrified.

NOW: Let’s Talk About It

In the beginning, when I gave up my inane discipline plans, I braced myself for the anarchy to come. Out went the sticks, the cups, the pointed fingers, the lost recesses. No more raised voice telling students that they better behave or else; no more threats of phone calls home. Instead, we had conversation, and lots of it. We talked together about expectations (high ones at that), and we wondered about the meaning of respect — respect for us as a learning community and respect for each student as an individual with rights and feelings and responsibilities.

Students were not minions or Wild Things to be corralled and controlled. With respect at the center of our community, we didn’t need rewards — no parties or pizza or coupons for good behavior. Out it all went, just like that.

That first year, I’ll admit, was nerve-wracking. I held my breath because I couldn’t be sure what to expect. Today was good, but what about tomorrow? I thought for sure that eventually the students would take advantage of me, would be sneaky and subversive. But that never happened.

If just one child was off during a day — disruptive, disrespectful and so forth — it was usually handled through a quiet conversation off to the side or right at his or her table. Sometimes we went into the hallway. I tried to limit the times I called out their names, and I was respectful in how I spoke to them. No more teacher from the top; no more “I am going to get you if you don’t listen,” but instead an invitation for them to evaluate how their behavior was affecting their learning and the learning of their classmates.

I also had to make sure the learning was something they did not want to miss. If the experience was dull or repetitive, asking them to consider how their behavior was affecting their learning would bear no weight. I believe this is why we are taught to take away recess; since it is fun, and students look forward to the break, we can hit them where it hurts the most.

If the learning itself becomes fun, engaging, exciting, collaborative, then asking students to step away from the learning means something. They want to participate and not miss out. Even with this new approach, it’s true that sometimes my class was just off — jumpy, jiggly, or falling asleep. In the past, I would have yelled and probably lectured about the importance of school. (Of course, that approach never seemed to startle them back into learning mode.)

In my reconfigured classroom, I came to see that if a day arose where the students seemed off, it was up to me to modify or change the planned activities. Sometimes I would try to include movement, extra discussion, some humor — anything just to get them tuned in. The learning goals usually stayed the same; after all, we did have a curriculum to complete. But the methodology behind the delivery would change, emphasizing whatever I felt my students needed that day to keep them engaged.

Over time it became clear that poor behavior tended to arise when students were bored or disengaged. My worst days were those where I had not considered the needs of my students — those days with too much sitting and too little choice. The result was something like “instant karma,” training me to become better and better at keeping the focus on what students need.

So you’re still wondering: How hard was it not to have a punishment system? In the beginning, very. Instinctively, I wanted to yell out “Move your stick!” I sometimes had to grind my teeth. It got easier with time. The students would know when they were misbehaving because we would discuss it. If the whole class or a majority of students were off, we had a class meeting. Yes, we spent a lot of time talking, but really, I would have spent about the same amount of time yelling at the kids and never coming closer to a resolution.

In this way, we grew together. The students got used to it; they did not take advantage, but instead relished the fact that they had a voice in their classroom and were expected to help fix the problem — not just rely on the teacher’s heavy-handedness. They knew what the behavior expectations were for the different learning scenarios because we’d discussed them the first week of school. This was our classroom, not just mine. It worked. It still works. I would never go back.

My lessons in motivation

Not punishing students does not mean letting things slide or letting them walk all over you. It simply means handling situations calmly and figuring out the “why” behind the behavior and then working on that rather than enforcing a set of rules. How you react changes from situation to situation — something that’s much more difficult to do when you have cut rules into stone the first week of school.

Much of misbehavior comes from students’ perception of control within the classroom. That perception also affects their intrinsic motivation for wanting to be successful participants. A problem with punishment and reward is that it often only motivates in the short term. And yet many teachers do not know how else to get students to behave. (You can read more about old and new ways to deal with common forms of misbehavior in this chart I’ve put together.)

I certainly was not consistently successful until I realized that the problem wasn’t the students, it was more often the curriculum and how I taught it. Meaning, it was really me. While I may not be the one who decides what to teach, I am most certainly the one who decides HOW to teach it. If I thought that mostly lecturing (which even put me to sleep in college) was going to capture the imaginations of 9-year olds, then I was in the wrong job. So I began to think and learn a lot more about motivating learners.

Here is what I know about motivation from shifting my own teaching practice:

• Choice matters. When students choose not just what they will do for a project but also what they would like to learn about (within some boundaries), you get buy-in. This continues to be one of the most simple and exciting realizations I have experienced.

• Motivation is contagious. When one student gets excited and has an opportunity to share that enthusiasm, the contagion spreads. My students get to blog about projects, we have huddles where we share, and we are a bit louder than we used to be. But guess what? Those loud noises are usually indicators that my students are super excited about something inside those boundaries I mentioned.

• Punishment/reward systems stifle learning. This short-term approach to motivation proved to be more harmful than helpful. It created a toxic learning atmosphere. Now we have class parties when we feel we want one. I have lunch with all my students several times a month because they ask me to. No one is excluded from anything. When homework doesn’t get done (I still have limited homework when kids don’t get enough time to do it in class or they don’t use their time well), I ask them how they plan to fix it, and most students choose to do it at recess. This is fine by me; they are free to go out and play if they choose.

• Be excited yourself. The fastest way for kids to lose interest is if you are bored. I faced up to the fact that I hated some of the things I taught and how I taught them (goodbye grammar packets). Something had to change. Now my students joke about how I almost always introduce something new with “I am so excited to do this…”.

• Consider outside factors. Some students have a lot more on their plates than we could ever fully imagine. We need to ask questions, get to know our students, and be a listening ear. When my husband lost his job, it was hard for me to be excited about everyday life. I was too busy worrying. I understand how outside worry can influence the way we function within our school. I’m sure you do, too.

• Manage and guide what’s in front of you. We will never be able to control what our students go home to, but we sure can guide what happens in the room.

Good teachers choose to create a caring environment where all students feel safe. Students let their guards down and feel it is okay to work hard and have fun. It’s the first essential step toward building a caring, self-regulating learning community.

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

2 Comments

  1. Thanks Larry, for supporting teacher voices around best practice – especially teachers publishing their first books. I know it wasn’t too many years ago when you were just such a teacher. I agree with you that this is a top-notch book, both for new teachers (it has a strong focus there) and veterans who are ready to empower their students more.

    Of course, I would agree, being Pernille’s editor in this enterprise. So I advise your readers to not take my word for it – buy the eBook and see for yourself! :-)

    John Norton
    Managing editor
    Powerful Learning Press

  2. I am currently a college student taking some education classes, and this some of the best advice that I feel that I have gotten. I have two children, so I have been on the parent side of the education front before I started learning about teaching. I think that sometimes teachers forget that students need to feel safe and cared for, need their voices to be heard and to feel as if their input matters. Education should be exciting, relevant, and real, and if it is then students will really learn, and I don’t mean learn to pass the test, but learn and remember.

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