As readers of this blog know, my answer to that question is “yes.”

Due to a variety of reasons, it’s not unusual for me to have at least one class each year in our inner-city high school that has a large number of students that face many challenges in their lives that, in turn, make functioning in an academic setting sometimes another challenge — to them and to me.

This year was no exception.

I’ve written several posts sharing the positive classroom management strategies that I’ve typically used to turn things around:

When A “Good” Class Goes “Bad” (And Back To “Good” Again!)
Maintaining A “Good” Class
More About Maintaining A “Good” Class
“Why Do You Let Others Control You?”

During the first portion of this school year, I used all the tools I laid-out in my previous four classroom management posts in one class.

To be truthful, none of them really worked.

They helped me to develop relatively good relationships with the students, and to communicate effectively that I cared about them — and feeling that an adult cared about them was and is an important relationship in my students’ lives.  But these classroom management tactics didn’t create a consistent atmosphere of academic discipline.

So what did I do after exhausting all the tools at my disposal?

I asked for help.

Jim Peterson is a very talented Vice-Principal at my school (whom I’ve quoted before in posts) who suggested a new strategy — one that might have echoes of familiarity with some methods that you’ve used or seem others use, and which might provoke some initial reactions of uncomfortableness, as it did with me.

Jim’s suggestion was using a daily point system — dividing up the class into sections and providing up to fifty points per section.  Students would begin with fifty points for each section and would maintain that point total if they were on task, following instructions, and not disruptive.  They would be constantly “paid” verbally (you could also call it a “vocal stamp”) and on a clipboard– “John, I’d like you to keep your fifty points so far,” etc.  If students were not following instructions, the teacher says, “John, I’d like you to keep your forty-five points so far.”  This kind of verbal “pay-out” occurs constantly during class.  At the end of each class period students would be told their point total (this is a very simplified description of his idea).

Yes, I know some of you are thinking, as I initially thought, what is a progressive educator like me doing considering a classroom management system that sounds like behavior modification and operant conditioning?  Why am I not continuing my focus on positive strategies to help students develop their own intrinsic motivation?

I have two responses:

One, as a former community organizer, I understand the tension between the “world as it is” and the “world as we’d like it to be.”  When I was organizing, and while I’m teaching, I believe that if we operate in the “world as we’d like it to be” all the time, we become ineffective dreamers — if we only operate in the world as it is, we become cold-hearted pragmatists who do anything for expediency.   I could have continued to function only using Alfie Kohn’s “Punished By Rewards” thesis (which I still believe has much validity), and I could have continued to have an out-of-control class.

Two,  as you’ll see in the rest of this post, this new classroom management strategy, and its “evolution,” has ended-up being extraordinarily effective in developing just that kind of intrinsic motivation and self-control I want my students to have.

When I first introduced this new strategy, I was surprised to find that the most challenging students liked it the most.  They felt that it helped them see how they were doing all the time — the idea of “points” was within their experience and understanding.  One slight modification I made to Jim’s strategy was, in addition to taking points away, I gave students the opportunity to regain the points by subsequent good work and behavior.  My goal was to give every student the highest point total possible each day.

There was an immediate improvement and after a month of using this system pretty much every minute of class, it was a difference between night-and-day.  Students who before gained their gratification through talking and disruption now got it through gaining points.

Now was the time for me to see if students, after having seem the difference in themselves and in the class, were invested enough in what they had become to feel that this kind of self-perception — that they were learners in a community of learners — was motivation enough to continue this kind of atmosphere.

First I began to reduce the number of times I would tell students their point totals, then I would go a day or two without even mentioning it — the positive atmosphere continued, and the students didn’t seem to miss not getting their points.

I talked with them about how impressed I was with how they were handling themselves, and how I’d like to use the point system less.  The students were enthusiastic.

Last week a student was being a bit off task one day.  I went to him and said, “Jack (not his real name), do I have to use the point system with you today?”  His immediate response was — to my shock — almost a sense of shame on his part as he protested, “No, I don’t need it, I can do my work without it!”  He did great the rest of the class.

He wanted to show that he didn’t need an extrinsic reward in order to be a learner in a community of learners.

As our principal put it, the response put an interesting spin on the idea of “Punished By Rewards” — the student now viewed the possibility of getting (or losing) points as something he didn’t want or need in order to be an academic student.

Of course, moving off the point system carries some risk.  I probably could continue to use it all the time, and have students focused between 90% and 100% of the time — much of that would be due to outside control exerted by me.

Or, I could use it less (though, I suspect I’ll still need to use it occasionally — we are talking about teenagers here!), and have between 80% and 100% student focus — but all of that would be intrinsically motivated by them.

I’ll take the second option, which is far better off than the class and I were before we got Jim Peterson’s help.