the power of praise

Praise has its place in many lessons. Whether in sport or an academic context, praise is beneficial to motivate, generate enjoyment and encourage involvement. But at what point does praise become insincere or inappropriate? How frequently should praise be given and what is the best way to do it?

It is a natural human instinct to want praise. It is part of human nurturing and fosters emotional and cognitive needs. From school classrooms to sports pitches, praise can raise self-esteem and confidence, and build resilience and positivity. Praise works – but there seems to be a catch. For Dweck (2007) “The wrong kind of praise creates self-defeating behaviour. The right kind motivates students to learn.” So begs the question: what is the wrong and right kind of praise and what makes praise effective?

Pitfalls of Praise

During my secondary school years I was in a school brass band.  I travelled parts of Europe and played my first solo in St Mark’s Square, Venice.  Great opportunities indeed, but when you are a pupil who plays music well, but doesn’t like the public praise, it becomes a different ball game.  I couldn’t get out of the spotlight quick enough.  I much preferred my brass tuition, where the praise was one to one, and was specific to how I was reading and performing the notes in front of me.  It was live feedback just for me, and I responded to it well.  So what of our classrooms?  Not all students feel a sense of ‘academic pride’ when publicly highly praised.  Praise is about empowering motivation and strengthening relationships.  If you know your students and are strategic with your praise, then praise becomes nuanced and an influence on self-perceptions.

Have you ever told a student “well done” for completing an easy task? I did – many times as a fledgling trainee teacher. Looking back, it was empty, not because I didn’t mean it, but because I didn’t attribute it to effort or resilience. It might have been for underlining a title and date, and not for recalling knowledge or showing mental toughness in problem-solving. I soon learned. I was praising something that the group I taught at the time, simply wouldn’t have found challenging; the group could spot it a mile off. Students know what constitutes their best efforts and how hard they are working.

The generic “good” – is it cheap praise? If we want our students to be motivated, inspired and resilient, safe in the knowledge that they are on a journey of progression from the novice to the expert, then praise has to be earned. Lavish praise for efforts can seem like a good way to encourage. It’s an easy win, but in reality, it often can send messages of low expectations. Would a sports coach praise an athlete for wearing their running spikes on the track? No. It’s an expectation. It’s the hard work of training that becomes the focus – praising the process of training for twenty hours a week for a race that lasts just seconds, for example. Research within the area of sport concludes that perhaps it is the non-generic praise given by coaches that leads to mastery.

So what of the classroom? What if a student has handed in a piece of work and they don’t usually bother handing anything in at all. Do you praise the student for their effort in completing the work? On closer inspection the work is below the expectation you have. Praising the student for the effort sends the message that ‘that’s good for you’ and lowers expectations. Focusing on the content and the thinking process you can see on the page sets the opportunity to signal improvement, and that expectations have not yet been met. In the current climate of cognition in education, the connection praise has in building cognitive development seems integral to student self-perception and the progressive transition of the novice becoming the expert.

Daniel T Willingham writes about such instances in depth, through explorations of cognition, in his thought provoking book ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?

Critics have raised questions about the legitimacy of classroom praise. In debates around reports, such as the Sutton Trust ‘What Makes Great Teaching’, confusion seems to govern how best to use praise in the classroom and how it should be done. Within the context of the classroom climate, it is concluded that there is moderate evidence of impact on student outcomes, but it would seem that effort over ability raises its head above the praise parapet and stands side by side with teacher expectations.

 Positives of Praise

I have recently been reflecting on how I praise my students. I have been conscious of using non-generic praise, praising my students for the connecting of knowledge from previous lessons, using specific vocabulary in different contexts and praising students for the use of sentence stems that strengthen the flow of their written responses –  to name a few. This has been peppered with ‘I can see your hard work’, ‘I’m impressed by your resilience,’ ‘I now want to challenge you with . . .’ and telling them that I am proud of their effort. The non-generic praise has then become a focus for student self-reflection and a signal that they are moving in the right direction. There is no evidence that effective praise has a negative effect on students. In fact, when I think of my own classroom climate, the non-generic praise has created a climate of positive reinforcement and increased class participation. The Power of Feedback (Hattie and Timperley) considers task-related information and learning goals around specific feedback in greater detail.

As teachers, we need to be mindful of how praise can hinder rather than help the development of learning – if given inappropriately. Learning mistakes, when criticised cautiously and mindfully, can be empowering when delivered constructively and in an environment of high expectations.

Dweck, in her pioneering work around growth mindset, concludes that the use of “process praise” – not just the effort, but also the outcome, conveys to students that their abilities can develop and indicates how this can be done.  Dweck’s ‘pointers’ of praise are set out below:

  • Praise students’ good efforts and strategies – not intelligence.
  • Talk explicitly and in detail about the strategies a student has used.
  • Support students to self-regulate through talking about the strategies that worked/didn’t work – praise through positive feedback and constructive criticism.
  • Get the students to share their thinking with you – get them to explain their work.
  • Use praise to connect efforts to task outcomes.
  • A child with low self-esteem – don’t praise their qualities. They too need to attribute success to efforts.

I’m fortunate to work in an environment where successes are recognised and hard work is appreciated. A teacher’s job is a challenging one, and the demands of GCSE specifications on our students makes their experience of challenge in KS3 and KS4 no different. Inspiring students, recognising resilience and pointing out progress are impressionable bookmarks in every chapter of a student’s learning – and if you can think of a student whose chapters of learning are not yet a book of learning for them, then help them write it through the positives of praise.

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