Super Improvers: Individual Motivator
Our primary goal in Whole Brain Teaching is to reward students for improvement, rather than ability. We praise better work more often than excellent work. In traditional education, rewards for ability result in the same students winning recognition, year after year. Too often our most gifted kids skate by with minimum effort while less talented students bail out of a race the system has taught them they can’t win.
When you reward for improvement, every student receives positive attention for breaking personal records. Special Ed and gifted pupils find themselves in a lively competition on the same playing field. Maria’s parents never graduated from elementary school; Herman’s parents are both doctors. Both students increase their reading speed by 10%. In a traditional classroom, Maria, a weak reader, might fail while Herman gets Student of the Week. In a Whole Brain classroom, equal rewards (as you will see) are bestowed on Maria and Herman. We celebrate growth, more than skill. Herman has to keep pushing hard, day after day, or watch as Maria wins recognition as a Super Improver. The message we communicate to our kids, over and over, is that the only person you have to surpass is yourself. Our mantra, once more, reward for improvement not ability. Our fundamental strategy is the Super Improver Team.
Post the Super Improvers Team display on a wall as early as the first day or as late as the third week. The Scoreboard’s focus, as you’ll see later, is the class as a whole; the Super Improvers Team’s focus is the individual.
Create a 10 level, color coded scale; create names for each level, ascending from least, to most, exciting. A nature theme might begin with snail and climb up to falcon. An ocean theme might begin with plankton and ascend to blue whale. Put every student’s name (or number) on the right side of the display.
On the first day of the Super Improvers Team, set one or two goals for all students. For example, every pupil can improve in following Rule 1 and writing neatness (or, increasing reading speed, use of gestures when teaching a neighbor, mastery of math facts, etc.). When you see improvement, praise the student. If the pattern continues for several days, award a star. After 10 stars, the kid’s color changes. For example, you’ve decided to focus on rewarding for Rule 1 improvement, “Follow directions quickly.” Hector, a bit of a slowpoke, shows increases in speed when getting out his study materials. Praise him. If he continues for a few days, becoming the new Speedy Hector, give him a Super Improver star on his name. Daphne, naturally quick, peps it up even more than normal when cleaning up her desk. Praise her new talents for several days. Then, give Daphne her star.
Here is what your Scoreboard might look like after a few weeks.
Our yearlong strategy begins with lots of praise at the start of the year and few stars. This makes improvement stars valuable. Mid-year, less praise and more stars. In the spring, when you really need student energy, it’s raining stars!
Now, please pay close attention.
You have to change your goggles. You’re not looking for the good kids. You’re looking for improving kids. You cannot pick an improvement goal for the whole class, unless everyone can show growth in reaching that goal. Therefore, don’t use quietly walking in the hall as a class target, unless every student makes a ruckus when they leave the room. A common mistake that educators make with the Super Improvers team is rewarding good, rather than improved, behavior. “Look at how nicely Melvin writes, class! He gets a Super Improver star!” No star for Melvin unless his neat handwriting becomes even neater. Ida’s handwriting is illegible; she has many virtues, but writing clearly isn’t one of them. But look here! Ida found a way to write more neatly! Give that girl praise … day after day. Then, award Ida a star for her new handwriting skill.
Change class goals whenever you wish, but for students to show growth (and to focus on how they can improve) you should keep targets for about a week. We suggest a maximum of two weekly goals, one academic and one social.
Academic targets for the class could include increasing reading speed, mastering math facts, improving handwriting, increased essay complexity, improved assessment scores, amped up energy in teaching classmates, expanded use of vocabulary words, etc.
Class social targets could include increased kindness, praise of classmates, use of language identified as “good manners,” selfless behavior, good sportsmanship, considerate leadership, mentoring lower grade students. Positive social skills are more difficult for students to identify than improvement in test scores. Thus, it’s best to give clear targets. “This week, I am looking for improvement in our manners. Today I just want to hear you say ‘please’ more often. Tomorrow, we will add ‘thank you.’” Or, “I’ve never seen anyone in this class play with Mrs. Johnson’s students. I’d love to see improvement in that area.” (Mrs. Johnson’s students are Special Ed.) Or, “I see a lot of litter on the playground and I haven’t seen anyone from our class picking it up. Gosh, I wonder if we could improve in keeping our school cleaner?” Or, “We all need to improve on Rule 1. Let’s pick up the pace … all day!!” Or, “We have a wonderful custodian, a great bus driver, and marvelous women in the lunch room. I want to see my kids smiling at these wonderful people and saying ‘hi!’” Or, “When I ask you to do something, I’d be happy to hear one lovely word, ‘Okay!’ It would be even more thrilling to hear, “Okay, Mr. Biffle!’”
After several weeks, give a small group of students individual goals. Juan needs to work on keeping his hands to himself. Martina should read more upper grade books. Change class and individual goals as necessary but don’t have too many individual targets because this creates a bookkeeping nightmare. For your most challenging kids, set improvement goals that will be the easiest for them to reach. Privately, tell Murray, “If you could keep your feet off the desk before first recess, that would be an improvement.”
Your natural tendency with challenging kids is to ask them to improve their most aggravating behavior. But this is not immediately possible. Sammy’s crying is aggravating because it is so frequent. It’s so frequent because his outbursts are a natural reaction to a frustrating world … a natural reaction that is deeply wired into his brain’s dendrites. Give your challenging kids improvement goals that are easiest for them to achieve. If you tell Sammy that his one goal is to stop crying, then he’ll learn, before long, that an improvement star is out of his reach.
A strategy we’ve found effective with our Beloved Rascals is to give them a list of behaviors and let them choose which one they think would be the simplest for them to improve. For students who have a difficult time with self control, set up the list so the behaviors are isolated to a time period: keeping your hands to yourself in line before first recess, keeping your hands to yourself when walking to the library in the afternoon, etc. You could include crying on Sammy’s list, but within time periods or parameters: no crying if you lose at tether ball, no crying about crayons during morning drawing.
To sum up: reward for improvement not ability. Reward for better behavior, not excellent behavior. Choose one or two class goals, academic and social, and keep these for about a week. Pick 3-5 students, gifted, rambunctious, troubled, for individual improvement goals. For your most challenging kids, select simple, well defined, targets.