12 April 2011

Four-Star Accolades

I'll cut right to the chase, here. Rewards work!

While I was working several years ago in Hayward, California, students arrived daily to a dilapidated elementary building that had been re-purposed as a high school. The classrooms were hexagonal, and had blackboards low enough to the ground for kindergardeners to use them.

On one wall, a huge display was labeled, "Stowell's 4-Star GENERALS." Names of various students were posted to indicate that they belonged to the exclusive club.

Teaching math, in my opinion, is so hard because it is so immediately apparent whether students are learning the material. When they don't, the frustrations mount quickly on them and their teacher.

The cadre of four-star generals was designed to motivate students to do well on tests.

The old school says that students need to study on their own and do their best because that’s what people are supposed to do.

In the real world, though, people want value out of their work. Young students, particularly, need to be taught how to recognize the value of academic success. They need practice succeeding, and even to learn how to want to succeed.

Four Star Generals helped them do that, in a small way. Our weekly tests were scored on a four-point scale, with the top score being very near perfection. It was very difficult to earn a four, so initiation into an elite group was an effective, yet simple reward. I saw my students work harder and demand more of themselves in order to earn a place on the wall.

Of course, rank has its privileges, so the generals had access to other perks in my class than those of lower rank.

The real power in the system was the mere recognition of hard work, and public acknowledgement of success.

Rewards get the job done.


  1. I'm not sure that rewards get the job done, but much as I try to get away from it, they sure do help!!

  2. When done correctly, rewards can certainly help. But there's a lot of interesting research that shows that some types of rewards can actually be demotivating. Other things, like autonomy, a sense of mastery, and a sense of purpose, can actually be large (or sometimes larger) motivators as well.