The Dangers Of Praise
‘Good girl/boy’ or ‘you are such a clever little boy/girl’ etc. are everyday comments I hear when around teachers and parents when they are talking to their kids. It wasn’t always like that. I hate to put on my ‘in my day’ hat but before the 1960’s the custom was children are seen and not heard, children developed their position in the community by their actions and by watching adults. So what happened?
The reason given for this change is that at the beginning of the space race the United States felt humiliated by the success of the USSR. This failure created a lot of retrospection and review amongst a range of their systems including their education practices. Coincidentally a book “Psychology of Self Esteem’ by Nathaniel Branden, the founder of the self-esteem movement came out and this caused a ‘positive praise’ movement that is alive and well to this very day.
No longer were children just a part of the family unit, ‘good parenting’ made them the focal centre of the family. Educators were taught that praise was a valued tool to raise the educational outcomes. I remember in my early years in ‘special education’ my American peers were expected to provide four positive comments to the class, morsels of praise for each negative statement. I must say that in my classes for students with severe behaviours, even the most ‘inventive’ teacher would have trouble adhering to this requirement without resorting to ridiculous incidents.
Granted the development of a strong sense of an authentic self is critical for all children but the term self-esteem is confusing and clouds that concept. An authentic sense of self is a truthful understanding of your character and abilities. This allows for self-criticism and improvement. The term self-esteem suggests that what is important is to value what you are. The difference is subtle but important. The latter view, the importance of the self is defensive, the popular book ‘I'm OK – You're OK’ by Thomas Harris (1969) is based on the idea that whatever you do you are ‘alright’.
The former is more like taking the view that ‘I’m imperfect and that is not OK; I have work to do’. This approach allows you to understand that you are not perfect, you make mistakes but because you are a good person you will work to improve. This is a better approach to achieving authenticity.
Enough of this philosophy the question is what is wrong with praising our students? Well it depends on how, when and for what you praise them. Lets start with the two lesser issues around praise; the when and how to commend.
Young children below the age of about seven will take what an adult says on face value. If you say to them ‘great job’ or ‘what a clever girl’ they take that on face value, they believe you. Soon they mature and become more critical of others’ judgments; teenagers are very suspicious of praise. They understand the truth; that praise is a form of manipulation and for it to have any validity it must be earned. There is an inverse relationship between age and the effectiveness of praise.
For the older kids an effective approach is the ‘second hand’ method. You can do this by saying to a student or a class that Ms. Smith told me you did some great work in her art class. I would of course follow that with some friendly humour like ‘she must have got her class mixed up’ to avoid their potential embarrassment. This second-handedness allows the kids to be a step away and the fact Ms. Smith told someone else about you indicates she really must have been impressed. Another way to provide this second hand praise is to tell another staff member about how much you value the class in a situation where they can overhear you.
Finally, in the ‘how’ category, when you praise a student leave out the ‘I’ in your message; don’t say I am proud of you. For some kids, especially those who have attachment issues linking the value of their work to your acceptance can be threatening. You're their teacher, personal acceptance is a given. Instead link the praise to their work. “You did a great job’ or ‘Just look how good you set out your title page’. The praise should reflect what they did and this will lead to intrinsic motivation.
The real issue around praise is the ‘what’. There are two types of praise personal and process.
This is when you praise the child for what they are. Things like, you’re very clever, you are a natural, you find this work very easy, etc. There is plenty of evidence that this has a negative affect. Children praised for ‘what they are’ will lack motivation and lose interest in the tasks and have their grades actually fall. Most dangerous is to tell them they are very clever.
Psychologist Carol Dweck gave a group of students a relatively easy ‘IQ Test.’ The test was done individually, that is, only the examiner and the student were present. For half the group, the examiner commented, ‘You must be clever.’ The other half was told, ‘You must have really worked hard.’
After a period of time the students were re-gathered for a second test. They were offered a choice of tests. One test was similar to the first test. The other was described as more difficult, but they were told they would learn a lot. Ninety percent of the students who were given the message about making an effort chose to do the more difficult test. The majority of the ‘clever’ kids took the easy option.
What this tells us is that if you praise kids for their intelligence, the following occurs:
- They don’t make any effort; they expect things to come easily to them.
- They are afraid to take risks, feeling it is better to be safe and look good.
- If and when they fail it is final; their failure is evidence that they are not as smart as you told them. More importantly, there is a faulty belief that there is nothing they can do about intelligence. The quantity is given; they can’t get more, and there is nothing they can do to control this failure. They have no useful response to failure.
This is to praise them for their effort. Be specific about what you are praising them for; describe the detail of what was good about what they did. Dweck’s work is at the frontier of the ‘effort’ movement that now dominates the current theory of student motivation. We are to praise them for their effort! There are problems with the ‘effort’ movement for instance some start to believe that ‘failure’ is only because you didn’t make enough effort but more of that in another Newsletter.
The students who have been praised for their effort are more likely to see failure as a result of not making enough effort. This gives them something to work on to change the result. This approach allows the students to take control, and they are more likely to maximize their learning in areas that capture their interest.
I can’t imagine teaching without praising the students. We become teachers because we love kids and the joy of seeing them grow into successful, independent young adults. This is our job!