The Way We Are Together

As I’ve written myself, when I was more of a scholar than a blogger, “Knowledge alone, untempered by the wisdom gained from applying it in the untidy context of experiences with others, is not always a good guide to making decisions or choosing a course of action.”

Shelter from the Storm - Looking out for each other. (photo by C. Black)

OK, I admit that sounds pretty stuffy, but  put another way, what we know isn’t worth much until it gets used, and using it involves dealing with other people.  This forces us to come to terms with the fact that what we think we know may be very different from what they think they know.  Learning how to be open to the views of others lies at the very heart of what it means to be educated.

You may be wondering what on earth this has to do with recess anyway.  It has a lot to do with it.  All the ingredients for learning are there, but they’re unplugged at recess, free of the familiar categories of math, science and reading.  Instead, learning is all tangled up with interacting with other children, just as it is in the real world that waits for them outside the school door.

Speaking of the real world, I’ve been very struck at recess with how badly children want to do the right thing, or the helpful thing, and how often they do exactly that.  From letting me know if someone is hurt, or picking up garbage to “save the earth”, or making sure that Slimey the worm has enough air (see previous posts), there’s a goodness and altruism about them that we need to cherish.  Many schools actively nurture this by rewarding the good things that children do rather than simply waiting for them to do something wrong and correcting it. The children also learn the language that goes with making good decisions that are considerate of others.  These schools are purposeful about emphasizing the way we are together and how much we depend on each other.  It makes a noticeable difference in how children act.

Playing by the rules

I saw this in action at Westwind Elementary School late last fall.   A group of grade 3 boys played Four Square every day during recess.  This is involves getting a ball in in one of four squares and hitting it to another player before it bounces more than once – or something like that. Games with complicated rules are very popular with older children at recess.  No more aimless running around for them – it’s all about play with purpose.

As we were going back into the school after recess, vice principal Liz Taylor stopped three of these boys and told them that she’d noticed that every day they had been putting all the balls and other equipment away without being asked.  As Liz puts it, “The boys were showing us some “Blue Ribbon” behaviour, where kids demonstrate positive actions without being asked — simply because it is the right thing to do.”

As it slowly dawned on the boys that she was going to reward them for that, their faces were completely transformed. They lit up as surely as if the heavens had opened above them and bathed them in light.  It wasn’t a look of pleasure about the reward itself, but a look of absolute wonder that what they had done was being noticed.  All the rewards in the world couldn’t have produced that look on three small faces.  For us it was the ultimate reward, and it couldn’t have been a better one.


3 thoughts on “The Way We Are Together

  1. You mention that some schools make a practice of rewarding good things, and the implication is that the rewards encourage more of this type of behaviour. What do you think about those who claim that praise and rewards can be harmful? (See for instance, *Punished by Rewards* by Alfie Kohn.) How does the “Blue Ribbon” program foster the intrinsic value of good deeds? My concern is that the boys noted above were willing to do good without being asked because they are young enough to still feel a strong connection to their school, teachers, adminstrators, and fellow students, but what happens when they are older and that connection has been eroded? What happens when they don’t get the external reward they may come to expect?

  2. Darcie, you are correct,these boys did what they did “because they are young enough to still feel a strong connection to their school…” Kohn’s work, as well as Daniel Pink’s more recent, DRIVE, make a good point regarding the inherent problems with “if, then” rewards. However, what’s being described here is not a reward in the traditional sense but rather an unanticipated, positive reinforcement. If the boys were given a reward each day for putting the equipment away, they would come to expect it and the task would become a chore. When this is the case, your query takes on significant importance. The unexpected reinforcement, whether it be a simple ‘thank you,’ some other sort of praise or a tangible reward as described above serves two purposes. It lets the students know that we notice what they do at all times, not just the moments when they are being unsafe and we are forced to interact, but also when they are meeting expectations (research indicates that we should interact with students at a ratio of at least four positive reinforcements for every correction, 7-1 is preferred) and not only does overall school behaviour improve but academic achievement does as well (kids do better in an environment where they feel valued).
    The second purpose is that having a process where the adults routinely provide positive reinforcement to all students significantly improves students’ feelings of the very connection to their school that you referred to (having a tangible reward is sometimes helpful to remind the adult to do it and if handled well, can be a source of fun and school spirit). This doesn’t have to be limited to elementary school either. There are many examples of secondary schools that have been successful in this endeavour (Richmond has several secondaries that have taken a similar school wide project on). The best and most recent example that came to my attention was the front page story in the Vancouver Sun this Saturday, regarding the recent Code Red incident at Sir Charles Tupper in Vancouver. As I read the article, I was was struck by how it turned into a story about how students, staff, administration and parents all recognized that ROARS (Tupper’s school-wide expectations and positive reinforcement process) played a significant part in the way everyone responded to the suspected critical incident and how the school community supports each other, in large part, because that’s they way they’ve been taught to do it, by following ROARS. It’s absolutely possible for students to retain a feeling of connection to their school from Kindergarten to Grade 12, but we have to work at fostering it and that’s exactly what that Vice Principal was doing that morning at recess.

  3. Thanks for the clarification, Larry, and this gives me the chance to mention that the Area Counselling Team (ACT) you work with has been key to helping schools in Richmond establish and maintain positive reinforcement approaches. This work has made a noticeable difference in how students act and interact with each other at schools that commit to this approach.

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