My response was that recognitions are qualitatively different from rewards. The critical issue in separating the two is that of control. Rewards are used to control the behavior and effort of students. When defining rewards, I use author Alfie Kohnâ€™s definition: â€œIf you do this, you will get that.â€ When children are offered a goody for completing a task, their energies are narrowly channeled in that direction. Thereâ€™s a controlling context when something is promised in advance.
With recognitions, thereâ€™s no effort to control students. Recognitions are meant to acknowledge a job well done and to express appreciation. Though recognitions often come in tangible form, they are never promised in advance and are not used to manipulate behavior. Thereâ€™s no â€œif you do this, you will get thatâ€ at work.
Confusion arises when we think of rewards as objects, rather than as situations. A â€œWay to Goâ€ Note is not, in itself, a reward; it depends on the context in which the note is presented. For example, if I hold up a â€œWay to Goâ€ at the beginning of the day and say, â€œKids, I will present one of these sheets to every student who behaves well today,â€ then that would be a reward because it fits Kohnâ€™s definition: if the kids behave well, they will get a â€œWay to Goâ€ Note. However, if I approach a student at the end of the day and say, â€œAlice, you really did great work today, and Iâ€™d like you to have this,â€ then thatâ€™s a recognition because itâ€™s presented after the fact to acknowledge a job well done with no attempt to control behavior.
I donâ€™t mean to imply that recognitions have no potential downside. Itâ€™s certainly possible for a student to receive acknowledgement for a job well done and then to continue behaving this way for the sole purpose of receiving further acknowledgement. Students can become addicted to recognition just as they do to rewards. The answer, however, is not to eliminate recognition. I donâ€™t know too many people who would want to work in a classroom where teachers and students didnâ€™t acknowledge one anotherâ€™s efforts. Youâ€™d need a jacket in that kind of cold atmosphere. Rather, any difficulties associated with recognition should be dealt with honestly and openly through class discussions. Be proactive. By identifying and discussing potential problems before they occur, we greatly decrease the likelihood that they ever will.