The Reward of Offering Trust and Choice

The larger part of my work as a class teacher was in inner-city schools.  Managing the children’s behaviour was the biggest challenge as I embarked on my career as a new teacher.  I worked with a headteacher who prohibited the use of rewards or punishments and instead asked teachers to trust in the power of an engaging curriculum.  Initially it felt counterintuitive not to mention a bit scary, but it came to shape who I was as a teacher and has informed my work in schools ever since.

‘Reactance Theory’ developed by Jack Brehm in the 1960s was based on research that showed how a lack of choice teaches us to rebel.  It demonstrated that when freedom is overly restricted an individual will be motivated to find a way of regaining it.  In schools this often means kids working against staff rather than with them.  What I learnt through the trial and error of my own practice was that my children thrived when I gave them room to manoeuvre.  As with any other learning they needed guidance about what good choices looked like and I needed to intervene when there were misunderstandings, but once embedded, trust became something that children didn’t want to lose.

As I gave children more opportunities to contribute to the learning process I discovered to my surprise and delight that their ideas were sometimes better than mine.  It was empowering for them to experience that and shifted our relationship to one that was characterised by mutual respect and shared creativity.  Paradoxically, the more autonomy I offered the stronger my authority became; the need for extrinsic rewards or punishments became something I no longer felt.  Instead I learnt to enjoy a culture that shaped the ‘responsible, respectful and active citizens’ that Ofsted and everyone else in schools really love to see. 


If you’d like to learn more about how to apply these ideas to your practice have a look Enlivened Learning Training