Going for Gold? Rewards in the classroom

Written by: Dr Bernard Trafford | Published:
Dr Bernard Trafford, head, Royal Grammar School, Newcastle

Where do you stand on gold stickers and rewards in schools? Dr Bernard Trafford responds to the recent debate

Who would have thought a few gold stars could create such a storm? Many a teacher, perhaps: we’ve all dealt with parents cross because their child didn’t win a prize, or gain as many gold stars as their neighbour.

It started with the government’s “behaviour tsar”, Tom Bennett, who was reported in the Sunday Times as criticising sticker charts as “inappropriate for older children” while even primary schools, he continued, should consider dropping them.

Then the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) issued a press release characterising Mr Bennett’s comments as tantamount to further government interference in the classroom, even down to micro-managing teachers’ use of classroom resources.

BESA represents manufacturers of gold stars and stickers, so it is tempting to misquote call-girl Mandy Rice-Davies’ infamous riposte to Lord Astor’s courtroom denial: “They would say that, wouldn’t they?”

As it is, Mr Bennett claims the paper misreported him. Sadly, confusion over who said what curtailed what was an interesting discussion. We don’t talk enough about rewards and motivation in schools.

Everyone knows the best motivation is intrinsic, something that comes from within the child. Highly focused individuals with a clearly defined aspiration to a particular result, course or career are often described as “self-starters”: they see what needs doing, get stuck in and achieve their goal. They are our dream pupils.

They’re also dauntingly superhuman! Most of us are prone to human foibles and weaknesses, and require occasional encouragement. The majority of children need to be told how they’re getting on: teachers spend their lives attempting to strike a balance between realism (how they are doing), optimism (what they might achieve, given a tail-wind), and encouragement (“you’re doing well: if you keep going, put a bit more effort in, you might achieve...”).

Human frailty, and the fact that the young live their lives in relatively short time-frames, means that the long-term aim can simply appear too distant. So schools over the centuries have invented myriad rewards systems as extrinsic motivation: hence (in the old days) the plethora of house points, commendations, names written in a Golden Book.

In modern times, the sheer ease of obtaining (and, for manufacturers, producing) stickers and gold stars has created an industry for tiny, short-term yet cumulative rewards. One gold star may be satisfying: but 10 equals something else; accumulate 100 and the school will give you a voucher to go to the cinema or (particularly if it’s connected to attendance) £50 towards a bike.

The danger of such small-scale extrinsic rewards, according to psychologists, is that children learn to do things not because they’re instinctively good or even in the interests of their own success, but because there’s a sticker in it for them. Extrinsic motivation, we’re assured, doesn’t work.

Well, it doesn’t: except when it does. I hand out a lot of small chocolates: such tiny, inexpensive gestures nonetheless tell children that something good they have done has been noticed. Some of my teachers use gold stars with sixth-form groups. There’s a tacit agreement that they’re being employed ironically, so everyone pretends to be unimpressed: but they still like them.

I would be uncomfortable rewarding children every time they get to school on time. But then, I work in a privileged setting where attendance isn’t an issue: I don’t judge those who find a different approach necessary. Stickers, stars and even chocolate have their place: but we should keep them lightweight. Like Tom Bennett, I can’t see the point in sprawling, unwieldy systems for accumulating and tracking stickers or gold stars. We don’t need to take this spat too seriously: but teachers will do well to remember the importance of rewards, praise and encouragement – something easily overlooked at pressured times.

  • Dr Bernard Trafford is head of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School and a former chairman of HMC. His views are personal. Follow him @bernardtrafford


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