Last week I expanded on some of my doubts about the concept of praise, particularly the current consensus that we should be going out of our way to praise effort. I concluded by saying, “no one would disagree with the power of a sincere compliment – the difficulty is in knowing the difference. Maybe we should start thinking about how best to encourage pupils to learn.”

I intended to spend the week considering the question of what to do instead, and then Tim Taylor wrote this summarising Alfie Kohn’s advice on how to make sure praise is sincere and useful:

A: Don’t praise people, only what people do

B: Make praise as specific as possible

C: Avoid phony praise – a parent or teacher who is genuinely delighted by something a child has done should feel free to let that excitement show. Praise becomes objectionable when it is clearly not a spontaneous expression but a deliberate strategy, a gimmick.

D: Avoid praise that sets up competition – “you’re the best in the class” etc.

Interestingly, some of these points seem self-evident, others run counter to much of the received wisdom on how we should employ praise. So, with all this in mind, I’ve spent much of the week considering each of these points and thinking about how they might be rebranded as ‘encouragement’. My guiding thought is that when we’re attempting something difficult would we rather hear, “Well done” or, “You can do it”? Do we need praise or encouragement?

Make praise as specific as possible

No one, I think, would take issue with this. We tend to see through such meaningless twaddle as “well done” and “good job”. These utterances are merely phatic, signifying precious little. But looking back through some of the books I’ve mark this term, these phrases seem to crop up far more often that I would have thought. I think I do it out of habit but as has a place holder – something to write while I consider what I really want to say. And interestingly, the younger the pupil, the more likely I am to slap on a ‘well done’. But it also seems abundantly obvious that being specific is always more useful than being vague.

This week as I marked my Year 8 books, I consciously avoided generic pats-on-the-head and focused on just giving them specific instructions  on how to improve. No praise. I asked them to give me feedback on my feedback by answering these 4 questions:

    • How did it make you feel?
    • How easy was it to act on?
    • Is your work better as a result?

Hardly scientific, but the consensus was that they didn’t feel much either way, it was easy to act on and, yes, their redraft work is better. One pupil said they wanted me to tell them what they did well. I have noted her name and will take account of this preference in future. No one said it made them feel bad and everyone felt that they had been able to improve their work. Although I didn’t praise anyone, they all felt encouraged by having improved their writing. My mini trial is confirmed by this paper from Hattie:

Praise for task performance appears to be ineffective, which is hardly surprising because it contains such little learning- related information. (p 87)

Praise addressed to students is unlikely to be effective, because it carries little information… and too often deflects attention from the task. (p 97)

He also points out that pupils like praise. But so what? They like eating popcorn, watching music videos and getting off with each other but I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting to minimise these things in the classroom. Pupils are often very poor at knowing what is good for them and their preferences are usually a weak indicator of what will work best.

Avoid phony praise

This is a no-brainer, isn’t it? As a rule, it’s always best to avoid insincerity. But as I thought about it, what I realised is that it can be devilishly difficult to spot ‘phony praise’. The way teachers interact with pupils is embedded over time. Just as pupils can suffer with ‘learned helplessness’, so can teachers. Changing habits is hard. It took me ages to avoid recitation (IRE) in classroom exchanges and it’s going to take me a long time to root out some of the sloppy language i use to ‘praise’ pupils for doing the right thing. The Year 11 class I wrote about in this post are far from being well-behaved and I can easily find myself applauding them for basics like turning up on time, sitting in their seats and doing the bare minimum of work. What do they learn from this? My suspicion is that when they get a ‘well done’ for sitting down it normalises bad behaviour. They start saying stuff like, “Look, I’ve written 2 sentences and not punched anyone. Surely I deserve some Vivo points.”

So, this week I’ve concentrated on not doing this. I’d love to report that they are now well-behaved but of course this isn’t the case. Four years of low expectations and instability will not be undone by anything so marginal. But, I can start trying to make my language part of the solution instead of adding to the problem.

Avoid praise that sets up competition

Now this is an interesting one, especially in light of all the current discussion about deciles. Harry Webb wrote an interesting post this week about bell curves in which he argues that much as we might wish otherwise, life ain’t fair. Pupils’ performance is relative and it’s useful to know how well we are doing compared to others because then we can do something about it. Someone has to be at the bottom of the pile, but it doesn’t have to be us. I also read this article from the New York Times: Losing is good for you which says,

When children make mistakes, our job should not be to spin those losses into decorated victories. Instead, our job is to help kids overcome setbacks, to help them see that progress over time is more important than a particular win or loss, and to help them graciously congratulate the child who succeeded when they failed. To do that, we need to refuse all the meaningless plastic and tin destined for landfills. We have to stop letting the Trophy-Industrial Complex run our children’s lives.

Now, may be this is getting a little off topic, but isn’t avoiding competition a poor goal. The example of saying, “You’re the best in the class,” isn’t bad because it creates competition, but because it’s divisive. It’s the praise that’s the problem, not the competition. I think encouragement could well work by engendering competition. What about saying, “You haven’t done as much as everyone else on your table” or, “This table have come up with the best range of ideas so far”? Would this be counter-productive? That’s a genuine question by the way – I think I’m on the right track, but I’d value some input on this point.

Don’t praise people, only what people do

I’ve saved this one for last deliberately. This is the one that runs counter to so much recent training in schools. Carol Dweck’s hugely influential book, Mindset, tells us that the way to a growth mindset is through praise pupils’ effort rather than their ability. Aflie Kohn tackles this view head on:

…the critical distinction between effort and ability doesn’t map neatly onto the question of praise.  First of all, while it’s impossible to dispute Dweck’s well-substantiated contention that praising kids for being smart is counterproductive, praising them for the effort they’ve made can also backfire:  It may communicate that they’re really not very capable and therefore unlikely to succeed at future tasks.  (If you’re complimenting me just for trying hard, it must be because I’m a loser.)  … to the extent that we want to teach the importance of making an effort — the point being that people have some control over their future accomplishments — praise really isn’t required at all.

Instead, he recommends what’s sometimes called process praise, or praising what people do. So instead of lavishing praise on pupils’ effort, however heroic, we should instead focus of their efforts. It might seem an insignificant distinction but adding that ‘s’ could make all the difference. Our ‘effort’ my be too bound up in who we are. but our ‘efforts’ are clearly separate from us. Effort is something we have to dredge up from within, but our ‘efforts’ are what we have produced. The main difference is that instead of commenting on what pupils are doing (which is inextricably bound up with who we are at that moment), we’re commenting on what they’ve done. And this takes us full circle. If I’m commenting on the work a pupil has produced, I’ll do much better to give them kind, helpful and specific instructions on how to improve it further.

Now maybe I’m confused about this. This study for instance conflates process praise and praising effort using the terms interchangeably. But the point isn’t to second guess our selves or try to catch others out, it’s to really think about what we say and it’s likely effects. I’m not saying not to praise kids, all I’d urge is that you think about why you’re doing it and what you want to achieve. I get asked a lot if particular techniques or strategies are ‘right’. Increasingly, I’m coming to believe that anything can be right given enough thought, and anything can be wrong if it’s done unthinkingly.

Think on.

Related posts

Is praise counter-productive?
The need for ‘Why To’ guides
Is there a right way to teach?