Pondering Praise


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october 2009 pondering praise by joe bower children have an intrinsic desire to learn praise and manipulation can only serve to stifle that natural motivation and replace it with blind conformity a mechanical work style or open defiance toward authority ~randy hitz and amy driscoll the next time you are out and about pay close attention to the interactions between parents and their children and you will very likely hear parents praising their children for anything from sharing to walking or if you are someone who spends a lot of time with children like a parent or a teachers consider counting the number of times you say phrases like `good job or `you re really good on the surface this praise appears to be very kind and loving ­ i mean we are saying nice things to children how can that be a bad thing that this question can invoke a kind of defensive awkwardness should imply urgency for examining praise far more carefully than we have cared to before carol dweck and alfie kohn have both written extensively on the topic of praise interestingly enough a common thread weaves its way through their findings ­ praise can be defined in many different ways and as kohn puts it the critical points [about praise are that some approving comments are not only acceptable but positively desirable and some are neither i so let s examine praise praising effort vs praising ability carol dweck is widely regarded as one of the world s leading researchers in the fields of personality social psychology and developmental psychology her researchii has differentiated between two kinds of praise praising the child for their intelligence ­ you must be smart at this and praising the child for their effort ­ you must have worked really hard in a study that dweck conducted multiple times because the results were almost unbelievable two groups of students were given a task one group was praised for their ability while the other was praised for their effort before being given any praise the two groups were indistinguishable however after the praise was applied the two groups began to differ when given another opportunity the students who were praised for their carol dweck s book mindset the new psychology of success shows that people need to adopt a growth mindset rather than a fixed one.


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ability seemed intimidated by a challenging task and overwhelmingly preferred an easier second task whereas ninety percent of the students who were praised for their effort wanted the challenging more difficult second task so they could advance their learning when we praise children for their intelligence dweck explained we tell them that s the name of the game look smart don t risk making mistakes students who are praised for their effort rather than their ability are far more likely to accept challenging tasks with a healthy resilient attitude when given a third opportunity to perform a challenging task the two groups showed some similarities and some differences both groups performed poorly at the challenging task but their response to this setback differed greatly the praised-for-effort group proved to be far more resilient in their attitude towards the challenge despite their lack of success and frustration with the task they proved to be far more willing to try different solutions and give it a go however dweck explained but the group praised for its intelligence hated the harder test they took it as proof they weren t smart as if the results from this experiment weren t enough to make us question our use of praise dweck had both groups do a task similar to the difficulty level of the initial test the praised-for-effort group showed a 30 percent improvement while the praised-for-ability group s score actually plunged 20 percent when both groups were asked to share their scores with others almost 40 percent of the ability-praised students lied about their scores and always in one direction dweck concluded what s so alarming is that we took ordinary children and made them into liars simply by telling them they were smart dweck s book mindset goes on to show the difference between students who have a growth mindset versus those who are stuck in a fixed mindset people who have a growth mindset see their intelligence as something that is always growing slowly over time and mistakes are opportunities to grow one s intelligence however people who have a fixed mindset see their intelligence as a prefixed quantity and if you are smart enough mistakes and failures just shouldn t happen information vs reward and punishment john wooden is considered by espn to be the greatest coach of all-time in any sport to say that wooden was a good coach is like saying einstein was good at science he coached at ucla for 12 years where he won 10 ncaa titles including 7 in a row in those 12 years he won 664 games out 826 opportunities that s a .804 winning percentage and during that time the ucla bruins ran the table with an 88 game winning streak that took place over almost three years four perfect 30-0 seasons if you were to go back in time and visit one of john wooden s practices you might expect to see him as the `sage on the stage providing his students with all of the knowledge they would need in his `chalk and talk lectures you might assume you d see him praising the hard workers and punishing the lollygaggers however if you were to make these assumptions you d be wrong when ron gallimore and john wooden was the first person to be elected to the basketball hall of fame as both a player and coach.


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roland tharp two education psychologists attended john wooden s practices for the first time while conducting a study of wooden they were shocked to see almost none of the above when they observed wooden they were at first quite perplexed because it appeared like he hardly coached at all we thought we knew what coaching wasiii gallimore said but upon closer inspection they found that he used his time to observe a lot and make short and quick comments to his athletes while they were actually doing wooden didn t give speeches he didn t dole out punishments nor did he hand out rewards and praise in fact when gallimore and roland actually recorded and categorized 2,326 of coach wooden s acts of teaching they found that only 6.6 percent were acts of disapproval while 6.9 percent were acts of praise that means that about 75 percent were statements of information if there was ever a coach who sports fans could agree should be given license to pass judgement it would likely be john wooden but when given the choice even wooden would prefer to reserve judgment this kind of teaching would have made jerome bruner proud when he said students should experience success and failure not as reward and punishment but as information i m not sure if wooden and bruner ever sat down over a beer to discuss pedagogy but it would appear that wooden was drinking what bruner was serving why we should stop saying good job alfie kohn writes and speaks widely on human behaviour education and parenting he has written extensively on motivation while working tirelessly to differentiate between the two kinds ­ intrinsic and extrinsic and how they are inversely related if one grows the other will likely diminish to understand kohn s message you must understand behaviourism ­ not because kohn finds behaviourism agreeable but because he acts as behaviourism s kryptonite to say kohn is critical of behaviourism is to say john wooden won a few more times than he lost you might say he literarily eats behaviourists for breakfast behaviourism s most salient message is its exclusive focus on behaviour and that alfie kohn is the author of a number of must-read books all things which organisms do including acting thinking and feeling can and including punished by rewards should be regarded as behaviours and our behaviours only occur because we and the schools our children have been positively reinforced to do so according to this school of psychological deserve thought rewarding is the best way to ensure that we reinforce the behaviours we want to invoke in others.iv and this is important to behaviourists because according to them we are only the sum of our behaviours ­ there is nothing else if you subscribe to this train of thought then the idea that misbehaviour is merely a symptom of a greater problem and not the problem just doesn t make sense kohn provides five reasons why we should stop saying good job firstly he points out the manipulative nature of rewards and asks is it possible that telling kids they ve done a good job may have less to do with their emotional needs than with our convenience he goes on to say that kids


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really do want our approval and it is our responsibility not to exploit that dependence for our own convenience secondly kohn points out that an over dependence on praise could turn kids into praise junkies kids don t learn to make good decision by following instructions or doing what they are told the same is true for self confidence as kohn explains kids come to rely on our evaluations our decisions about what s good and bad rather than learning to form their own judgements research out of the university of floridav has shown that students who are praised are less confident when despite our good intentions asked to share their thoughts in class and are far more likely to praise s manipulative nature waver if an adult disagreed with them think for yourself your can turn kids into praiseteacher might be wrong would truly be a foreign idea for these junkies who express less students in dweck s book mindset she writes about these interest and achievement praise-junky kids who have grown up and entered the work force and sure enough many can t function without getting a sticker for their every move instead of yearly bonuses some companies are giving quarterly or even monthly bonuses instead of employee of the month it s employee of the day rather than simply rewarding or praising more she suggests we need to step back and take another perspective jane nelson wrote in her book positive discipline these children and later these adults may develop self concepts that are totally dependent on the opinions of others other children resent and rebel against praise either because they don t want to live up to the expectations of others or because they fear they can t compete with those who seem to get praise so easily thirdly constant praise can steal a child s pleasure there are times when kids do need our guidance but our evaluations of them should be provided as scaffold support so that children share their pleasure with us rather than simply looking to us for our ruling kohn explains further that sadly some of these kids will grow into adults who continue to need someone else to pat them on the head and tell them whether what they did was ok an over dependence on praise can stem from a gross misunderstanding of self-esteemvi researchers are finding that the more conditional the support [a person receives the lower one s perceptions of overall worth as a person vii kohn and dweck both write about how praise can actually reduce achievement fourth reason and sap a child s interest fifth if the name of the game is to look smart then it doesn t make a lot of sense to gamble with your reputation this is why students who are taught to focus too much on their intellectual reputation collecting as in school come to avoid challenges altogether parents and teachers may become frustrated with students they label as lazy because when offered a choice between two tasks they tend to select the easier of the two but are they lazy or are they simply being rational for those who focus on their intellect imperfections are shameful ­ especially if you are talented explains dweck they have adapted to an environment where results not intellectual exploration are what count says kohn to overuse or incorrectly apply praise on students may change its role in the eyes of the students ­ kids may come to see praise as the prize rather than the encouraging support it should provide the idea here is that the child s perception of our message is more important than the message we think we are delivering.


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why am i smart there is a strong line of research that shows us that how people perceive their intelligence or success may be more important than whether they are intelligent or successful let s pretend little sally did a `good job how might sally explain her success here are a number of reasonable responses little sally might give · · · · `i worked my tail off for that project `i m just a natural at this stuff `i guessed on like half the questions `it was really easy let s categorize these responses · · · which are internal factors and which are external which are stable and which change over time which are in sally s control attempting to identify how little sally attributes her success or failure in this manner was developed by bernard weinerviii and it has proven to have some striking implications take a look at sally s responses again which response would you rather her attribute her success to sally might attribute her success to factors that are how we perceive our intelligence external luck and difficulty factors that are stable ability and and to what we attribute that difficulty or factors that are out of her control luck difficulty and ability most parents and teachers that i know would want success may be more important sally to attribute her success to effort because it provides a lot than actually being intelligent or of optimism for future growth the problem arises when we successful praise kids in a way that encourages them to focus on how well they are doing kohn points out when kids are led to focus on how well they are performing in school they tend to explain their performance not by how hard they tried but by how smart they are ix this means kids are very likely to attribute their successes and failures to factors such as luck difficulty and ability before effort that is to say they are likely to attribute their successes and failures to factors that are external strictly stable and out of their control dweck would describe anyone who attributes their successes and failures in this way as suffering from a fixed mindset there is a big difference between focusing on showing how good you are and focusing on showing how bad you re not and it might be worth reflecting on how much time we should even spend focusing on showing how good we are when we could be spending our time learning and improving.


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alternatives to praise if praise can be harmful to people then what are the alternatives alfie kohn offers five thought provoking alternatives to praisex instead of saying i like the way you good drawing i love those pictures try saying nothing and just paying attention describing rather than evaluating what you see hey there s something new on the feet of those people you just drew they ve got toes explaining the effects of the child s actions on other people you set the table boy that makes things a lot easier on me while i m cooking inviting reflection how did you come up with that way of grabbing the reader s attention right at the beginning you re such a great helper that was a great essay you wrote good sharing michael asking rather than judging what made you decide to give some of your brownie to deirdre when you didn t have to even if you are reluctant to give up praising can you really argue that the statements on the left praise are more productive than the statements on the right when you praise how much longer do those conversations carry on have you noticed that praise rarely ever encourages a lengthy meaningful conversation remember how much of john wooden s comments to his athletes were just information to provide as much information to his players as he did wooden would have had to subscribe more to the right hand column than the left give the items on the left a chance and you ll notice an increase in both the quantity and quality of meaningful conversations you have with kids or people in general still not convinced teachers might find it helpful to view praise with an assessment perspective assessment can be broken down into two types assessment for learning formative and assessment of learning praise is a form of assessment summative the difference between these two brands of assessment of learning it s a judgment that is definitely more than just semantics assessment for learning refers to just doesn t provide enough the feedback parents and teachers give kids so that they can improve information for kids to make their understanding and quality of work assessment of learning refers improvements to the teacher or parent s judgment of a kid after the learning has taken place if we are to work with children would their learning benefit from more formative or summative assessment on a daily basis and if you were to re-label the columns in the chart above which would be assessment for learning and which would be assessment of learning it would be ridiculous for a teacher to scamper around the classroom passing out grades and expecting


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the students to improve while it would be equally unrealistic for a parent to run around passing judgement on their child expecting that judgement to provide enough information for the kids to improve their learning or behaviour where kohn suggests a move away from praise altogether dweck suggests we change the focus of our praise from their ability to their effort the following chart might help you to ensure that the things you say to kids have them focus on their effort rather than their abilities instead of saying wow you got eight right that s a really good score you must be smart at this try wow you got eight right that s a really good score you must have worked really hard you re on the honour roll you must have worked your tail off to get on the honour roll you re on the honour roll only smart people get on the honour roll for many teachers and parents the use of praise has become a kind of verbal tic and so modifying or removing its use won t be easy it s become such a habit that change may feel quite awkward ­ which may suggest that we praise more because we need to say it than because children need to hear it writes kohn in kirsten olsen s book wounded by school a father reflected on his withdrawal from praise truth be told while my son was getting along fine under the new praise regime it was i who was suffering it turns out that i was the real praise junkie in the family xi as you ponder this examination of praise keep in mind that this is not just a matter of memorizing a new script kohn explained rather it is about keeping in mind our long-term goals for our children the bad news is that the use of positive reinforcement really isn t so positive the good news is that you don t have to evaluate in order to encourage i for an extensive review of the research behind why rewards and punishment are immoral and ineffective read alfie kohn s book punished by rewards chapter 6 ­ the praise problem ­ focuses entirely on praise ii dweck carol s mindset the new psychology of success iii for more on gallimore and tharp s study of wooden take a look at their book rousing minds to life teaching learning and schooling in social context iv interestingly enough even behaviourists have to admit that the use of punishment is a very ineffective way of achieving compliance or anything that would resemble cognitive development v i need to reference mary budd rowe 1974 vi kohn examines self-esteem briefly in chapter 2 of his book unconditional parenting and extensively in his article the truth about self esteem which appeared in phi delta kappan in december 1994 vii harter susan the relationship between perceived competence affect and motivational orientation in the classroom viii bernard weiner was one of the main psychologists who focused on the attribution theory in education ix this quote is from alfie kohn s book the school our children deserve all teachers owe it to themselves and their students to read this epic book.


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x you can read more about these alternatives in kohn s article five reasons to stop saying good job you can find the table that i used in his book unconditional parenting xi if you re in the mood for some heart-stabbing depressing stories about how school can mortally wound students consider reading wounded by school by kirsten olson.



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