I have written about this before. It’s time to go a bit deeper. We have become hooked on a weird interpretation of praise. Afraid that our children might grow up with a less than optimal sense of self-esteem, we lavish them with praise for the oddest things. Little Mary comes home with 10/10 for spelling – yet again – and we tell her what a clever girl she is. Johnny wins the grade three running race and we frame his medal. But what has Mary really got to be proud of if she just happened to be born with the kind of memory that easily remembers and recalls visual spelling patterns? Why should Johnny feel a sense of achievement because he was born with longer legs and the kind of musculature that makes it easy for him to run fast? They really didn’t have to do much more than turn up in order to do well.
If we want our children to become people who strive to improve, who are prepared to put in the hard work it will take to solve the serious problems we face as a society, let’s start praising our children for something more than simply existing. Let’s praise them for the efforts they make.
We have far too many bright children in chains because we told them how clever they were for nothing more than being who they were. They are the ‘gifted under achievers’ whose sense of worth got all confused and mixed up with the innate gifts they were told they had, rather than the use they made of those gifts. These kids face the risk of losing who they think they are every time they face a challenge they may not be able to lick easily. Who wouldn’t back away when the odds are so high?
So what do they do instead? They deliberately fail by not turning up at tests, by failing to hand in work, they feel sick when there is an exam or they decide that they have a lousy teacher, a disruptive work group or too many personal problems. Their school reports are filled with comments about how they have “not reached their potential”. If my sense of self is tied to someone’s idea about my potential, it becomes a very risky business to try and reach it. What if it isn’t actually as high as everyone thought it was? What if I fail along the way? That will mean I am a failure.
Meanwhile the kids who knew that they had to earn praise by actually doing something are working hard to improve, seeing mistakes as pointers to the next things they need to learn. For them failure isn’t any threat to their self-esteem because they understand that their sense of achievement comes from getting better at things that are really hard in the first place. When these kids fail at something, they only become ‘failures’ if they give up. Carol Dweck describes this as having a ‘growth mindset’ rather than a ‘fixed mindset’. Check out her book “Mindsets’, it is well worth the effort.
It’s hard, but not impossible to help these kids remove the chains that hold them back, but it is far better not to forge them in the first place. Part of the secret is to praise effort rather than ability. Ability is more or less what we were born with. Why would we expect praise for something that had nothing to do with us? Being lucky enough to come from a particular gene pool, be born in a particular social stratum in a prosperous country may be cause for gratitude, but not for pride. So keep the praise for what our children DO rather than who they are.
The very act of providing praise can restrict growth and learning. Carol Dweck explains how it is that students who are praised for being clever can actually perform more poorly on tests, including IQ tests, when compared with those who are praised for putting in effort. Dr. Arthur Costa, in his teachings on Habits of Mind advises us to hold back on judgmental responses when a student answers a question in class. Praise for an answer is praise for an end product rather than a process. Keep the praise for evidence of thinking going on, not for answers. I have seen thinking simply shut down in the room when I have responded to a student with something like, “That’s great Mary, good answer.” Everyone thinks “why bother? Mary’s hit the nail on the head. No more work needed”.
We certainly need to acknowledge the responses of students in class, but save the praise until the thinking work has been concluded. And even then, direct it towards effort not just cleverness.