For some time I have had a “Reward Box” in my classroom. I tell my classes that they can earn something from the box if they put in a good amount of effort during the lesson. The box is stocked with cheap and cheerful items from well know high street shops that are famous for selling items for £1 – you know the ones I mean – and other similar shops that have items for pennies rather than pounds. I have always found that almost all students want something from the box and most are prepared to work for it.
Recently, this idea was picked up by my head teacher and rolled out across the school. The kids really bought into it and commented on how it was great that they could now earn ‘stuff’ in every classroom. And all seemed well with the world. As long as I kept the boxes stocked up with pens, pencils, sticky notes, iPad stylus pens, funky rubbers and other such random stationery, the kids would engage with their lessons more.
That was the theory anyway. For the first few weeks, it seemed to be working, but slowly I started to notice that, not only were some teachers no longer buying into the idea and giving the rewards out when the kids were working well, but my own classes seemed less willing to work as hard for me as they could get something for less effort in another class.
I still believe in this strategy as a way to engage less than enthusiastic students, but I think it will only continue to work under certain circumstances. Everyone needs to give rewards consistently for the same level of effort or the system simply stops working. I know that if this was on offer when I was at school and I could get the same thing for less effort somewhere else, I would not have had any reason to try in a lesson where I didn’t feel confident. I think a relaunch may be necessary to get the kids back on track for the last few weeks of the year.
I have taught a lot of different students over a lot of years and I am good at my job. But I can not do anything with students if the are not prepared to get involved. One of the reasons, I believe, that some students fail to engage in lessons, is simply that they don’t believe that they can do it! Whatever “it” happens to be.
I started to think earlier in the year (when I changed classrooms) how I could improve this self belief. One of the things I found, when specifically looking, was that some very weak students will not engage because they are afraid to get things wrong and it is better (in their mind) to disengage from the lesson than to try and fail. This, almost, conscious refusal to try was something that I thought I could get through with the right resources. So, after some thought and a bit of research, I discovered whiteboard topped tables. I then found that one of the other departments had some that they did not want – so a swap was arranged.
I did not know whether my plan would work or not, but I set out my class with pencil cases of whiteboard pen on every table and told the students they could write on the tables. The first week was not much fun for me. I saw many penises on many tables as well as many other non mathematical symbols, but I hoped this was just teething problems due to the novelty value. Sure enough, after a week or two, all I could see was calculations and working out on the tables.
This was great to see with my top sets, but the best thing was that my weakest students were also beginning to engage. It seemed that, if they could simply erase any mistakes, so nobody knew they had happened, they were much happier to try. It wasn’t long before my bottom set year 10 students were tacking some quite tricky Pythagoras problems that they wouldn’t have gone near if the only option was to write in books.
I am still very clear with my students that I want to see all working out in books, but am happy for they to test drive their ideas first – and its working!
When I took on the role of Lead Practitioner in a new Maths department, one of my roles was to improve engagement. How do I do this? I began to have a think about which lessons my students really engaged with and which ones were trickier to keep them on task. I found, unsurprisingly, that the more hands on the lesson, the more my students got on-board. However, not all lessons can be fully active and I do have a few who don’t like this way of learning. So I have decided to start blogging about the variety of ways I try in my classroom to engage students. Although I don’t expect to find the magic pill, I hope to find a few strategies that work most of the time. Please feel free to comment on my posts with your own feelings and ideas.