Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

01.28.15Are You Throwing Dollars? [Updated]

To succeed in almost any classroom it helps to have a management system, a nexus of small scaled consequences and rewards you can use to process under-productive behavior and shape positive behavior efficiently and consistently.  When you add that to a classroom that includes:

 • Discipline–a commitment to teaching students the right way to do things (see chapter 10 of TLaC 2.0)

Control–knowing how to get people to do things regardless of consequences or rewards (see chapters 11 and 12 of TLaC 2.0)

Influence–moving kids from behave to believe (Also chapter 12, as well as pretty much all of the academic chapters)

Engagement–having lots of real and rigorous intellectual stimulation to say yes to (see chapters 1-9 of TLaC 2.0)

You’re on your way to a rock solid and positive classroom culture.  One of the hidden benefits of a management system, by the way, is its humanity.  By providing small consequence for small mistakes it allows students to stumble and learn and get smarter at low cost. You shouldn’t have to wait until someone’s mad at you and shouting or keeping you in for detention to know you’re not doing your part in the classroom.

Once your management system is in place you have to protect and respect it. This can be a surprisingly big challenge.  The most common way to undercut and erode the system is to over use deductions, laying on  consequence after consequence until they appear meaningless and students have nothing less to play for.  Slightly less common but equally critical is the un-strategic use of rewards.  We call this “Throwing Dollars.”  When a teacher throws dollars she/he rewards students for doing what merely meets his/her expectations. Answer a question; get a “scholar dollar.” Follow a direction; earn a token.

Doing this suggests that the behaviors were not the teacher’s expectation, but were, in his/her mind, exceptional, an action the ironically undercuts expectations.  This cheapens praise and lowers standards –not only for the teacher in question but for everyone who shares the management system with him/her.

In the interest of protecting the value of the [Scholar] Dollar, here’s a self-check.  If you find yourself saying yes to some of these it might be worth being more attentive and intentional in how you use the rewards in your management system.  (I refer to “dollars” below but the situations can apply to any system of rewards).

You Might Be Throwing Dollars if you:

• Give scholar dollars when students meet your expectations (rather than when they exceed them)

• Give scholar dollars to the majority of kids in a class during most class periods

• Give scholar dollars to every kid who answers a given question

• Sometimes hear students ask where their dollar is after they do something (Hey, I got that one. Where’s my dollar?)

• Notice diminishing returns… that is, students respond less and less positively to each dollar you give

• Are out of sync with your peers in terms of how many dollars you give  (ideally your school would provide you with comparison data to help you gauge your use).

• Are reliant on your management system and struggle to manage your students if you are away from it.

• If a right answer gets a student a dollar.

Award a dollar every time you see a behavior (rather than some or most of the time you see it)


By the way, some people who object to management systems say that they dislike them because they want kids to do what they do for intrinsic reasons.  I think it’s illogical to assume that one precludes the other.  I do what i do for intrinsic reasons but if there were no pay check i would have never started it and therefore never come to love it and built my sense of what i intrinsically value around it.  But I do think it’s important to think about HOW your management system supports kids developing an intrinsic value system.  To me things like consistency really matter. And the strength of your relationships really matters.  In many ways that’s why throwing dollars is so dangerous. It makes your interactions–your most powerful ones, where you tell students you appreciate them–feel obligatory.  So positive rewards should come as occasional thank yous for unusually good work; not as a predictable response that comes every time something happens.


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