Learning by the Yard

“Authority is granted to people who are perceived as authoring their own words, their own actions, their own lives, rather than playing a scripted role at great remove from their own hearts.  When teachers depend on the coercive powers of law or technique, they have no authority at all.”           Parker Palmer

The video linked above is one of my all time favorites for lots of reasons; yes, the cool animation is one of those reasons. But the key reason is the way Dan Pink prompts us to think differently about the traditional practices we use in schools and the assumptions those practices are based upon. Because schools are usually large, complex and laden with ‘tradition’, we tend to use rather blunt tools to manage and maintain order. We develop policies, and codes of behaviour and implement them with a one-size for all approach.

Using rewards and punishments (or carrots and sticks) is one of the traditions that is deeply embedded within the culture of most schools and classrooms and it is something that we are beginning to reflect upon as a school community. I’m careful when I approach this topic because it tends to pick at the very essence of our beliefs as educators and parents and can lead to rather heated conversations and responses. It is, however, important for us to talk about these practices because, in my experience, truly inclusive school communities and classrooms do not require carrots and sticks and, it turns out, the research tends to support this.

Daniel Pink’s synthesis of the research focuses on three concepts; autonomy, mastery and purpose, as the critical components for motivation and engagement. He also points out that rewards do work in contexts or circumstances where the task requires lower-level thinking or application of skills. Of course, this is the great challenge; if we think about the knowledge, skills and beliefs that we know our children are going to need to be caring, successful and healthy in the world we now live in, our focus must be on higher-level thinking and skill development. Let me share an example of what this looks like in my practice

I’ve remarked to many, that Park Avenue is perhaps the most active and athletic school in which I’ve ever had the chance to work. Every corner of our yard is occupied with children playing some type of game, and the intensity of the soccer and football games played by our older students is remarkable.  Over the past few weeks we have been working with the students in grades 4 to 8 to resolve some conflicts and mangage the challenges that pop up during these games. Some of these conflicts have led to some words and actions that are just not okay, and both students and parents have raised this concern with us.

Of course, the easiest (and bluntest) response would be to just use the ‘stick’ and ban the games. We have not chosen that path but instead have engaged our students in a critical and reflective inquiry about why and how these conflicts are arising and how they can use these situations as a context to learn about self-regulation, cooperation and creative problem solving. They have written about their issues and concerns, we have met to talk about these issues and we have made some decisions about how they want to play and what they want to happen when hurtful things are said or done.

A few key decisions were made. The first was to stop keeping score; since many of the conflicts were the direct result of arguments over scores, we hypothesized that eliminating the score might help reduce the conflicts (and it has). Another decision was to be clear about how we would manage name calling and rough play; the players agreed that this was a problem and asked for support in monitoring and intervening when this occurs. As a result, I’m watching a lot of recess soccer and football games these days and providing that direct support through conversations, reminders and, occasionally, time outs.

I’m impressed with the passion and honesty that our students have brought to this issue and have appreciated the chance to use this situation as a chance to  both model and put into practice, my beliefs for our students, staff and community.



  1. November 17, 2012 at 10:40 am

    Excellent post, Brian. You really model the power of investing in a process of ownership for “problems”/conflict. By approaching in this way, students experience the power of discourse as a way to move knowledge and understanding forward. Awesomeness!! 🙂

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