A couple years ago, a friend of mine, who’s a violin teacher, had a huge realization while working with a younger student. He gave his student a dog sticker to congratulate his student for learning something hard. The student got sooooo excited. Reflecting on this, he realized that the sticker gave his student a sense of completion.
No one ever gives us stickers as adults. But how deeply satisfying would it be to get one—to have someone return an assignment to us with a little colorful sticker on the top. To have the feeling that we had really finished something.
After my friend’s sticker realization, I started giving my math students stickers all the time. I believe I did this because I wanted to give my students a sense of completion. And I wanted them to feel that math, like stickers, could be sparkly, colorful, bite-sized, and fun. A source of delight, excitement, pride, and surprise. I didn’t think I was using stickers as a reward—more as a way to celebrate their work.
Now, after reading all this recent research about how using any reward can undercut students’ intrinsic motivation, I am asking myself, are stickers wrong? Am I actually creating a situation where I’m training my students to expect and be dependent on immediate gratification? I wonder if I am preventing them from learning to persist through struggle and confusion without me sitting there ready to cheer them on and give them a sticker at the first opportunity.
I’m not sure I can wean myself off of stickers completely. But maybe I’ll try to give them to my students the same way I’m trying to learn to give praise: intermittently, and only for things that the student actually had to work hard to learn.
But that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop carrying my secret sticker stash around with me everywhere I go.