On Praise


via BBC News – Lavish praise from teachers ‘does not help pupils’.

I heard an outline of this piece of research by the Sutton Trust on Radio 4 this morning whilst pulling up my socks. The paper ‘What makes great teaching?‘ which you can read in full here, sets out to address the nature of good pedagogy and the types of frameworks and tools that can be used to deliver it. However the majority of press articles has focused on what the researchers deem ineffective practice, such as the overuse of praise:

Praise for students may be seen as affirming and positive, but a number of studies suggest that the wrong kinds of praise can be very harmful to learning. For example, Dweck (1999), Hattie & Timperley (2007).
Stipek (2010) argues that praise that is meant to be encouraging and protective of low attaining students actually conveys a message of the teacher’s low expectations.

Children whose failure was responded to with sympathy were more likely to attribute their failure to lack of ability than those who were presented with anger.

Now, most classroom issues that unexpectedly find their way onto breakfast news usually invoke that sinking feeling, condensed as they are into soundbites that appeal to the most reactionary part of our brains. This time there was less ‘oof!‘ than ‘hmm..‘ as I remembered a discussion that took place in my office earlier this year.

As the school’s data manager, it was my dubious pleasure to scrutinise half term test reports and identify under achieving pupils in each age group*.  Alongside the special needs coordinator, I would proceed to hold termly meetings with class teachers (the grownup’s equivalent of writing ‘see me’ at the bottom of the page) to discuss strategies for improving teaching and learning.

At one such meeting, the class teacher and I were discussing the progress of Alec. Alec’s disruptive and dangerous behaviours were the result of emotional and physical trauma from a troubled family background. In the past, Alec would almost always refuse work, absconding from the classroom to kick against a wall and abuse other pupils to the point were fights were an inevitable conclusion. This year, he was working closely with a 1-1 support worker and this attention combined with the outstanding teaching capabilities of my colleague had led to a point where she could actually begin to address the gaps in his education. There were, however, certain challenges with this:

“At the beginning, I was just so proud of the fact that he would listen to me and do what I asked that I heaped praise on him all the time. Well done….that’s brilliant, I’d say even if he had just produced a few lines. I then started to notice that he wouldn’t really try after that, he’d just sort of kick back. He’s quite sharp, he knew his work wasn’t as good as it could be but why try when I’m telling him he’s wonderful . So then instead of praising what he’d done, I just acknowledged it instead. Like, okay Alec…I see you’ve started to try but I’m really looking for this. Can you do that for me? And it seems to work, he tries much harder now that I save the praise for when I really feel his effort is reflected in his learning.”

Which seems to agree with the research, right?

Let’s assume that the sort of praise the researchers see as inadequate is the response given to academic achievement (and not the framing of positive discipline, prevalent in the behaviour management policies of most schools – well done for sitting quietly Asha, that’s the sort of behaviour I’m looking for in everyone). More than smiley faces or sticky golden stars, the act of praise is the most motivational and thus powerful tool at a teacher’s command, for praise is the verbal manifestation of the pride a teacher feels in her pupils’ achievement. It is this pride along with attributes such as honesty, safety and trust which are the cornerstones of the teacher-pupil relationship. The ability of Alec’s teacher to establish such a relationship with her pupil allow him to take these qualities and embed them into a vision of his own educable self, call it his self-esteem if you will. The result being a space where both teacher and pupil can see that ‘praise as encouragement’ is unnecessary, the existence of the relationship fulfills that need, and so can be replaced with ‘praise as joyful celebration’. I would question that without the teacher’s skilful negotiation of the nuances and boundaries of a relationship that originates from the praise/pride agreement, whether simply replacing the praise with criticism or anger would have the same effect.

So go ahead teachers, take away the lavish praise. But you’d better have all the rest in place first.



*Under achieving pupils are those who are academically achieving less than standard age related expectations in reading, writing and maths.


Networking (by candlelight)

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The references and opportunities for social networking in our culture are simply too great to miss. Whether through facebook, twitter or tumblr, we share what we think and do not just with the people who populate our everyday lives but our virtual ones as well. And with good cause, if you have a niche interest (let’s take philosophy of education, for example), then the likelihood of someone physically close to you with the same interest is greatly reduced. Now that the internet has expanded our networking to an exponential degree, the very fact of creating this blog rather than diarising my thoughts privately, means that I expect, some day, that others will read and respond to my voice.

Before online social networks, however, there was the conference. In times gone by, isolated philosophy academics, shunned by their more empirically minded counterparts would meet yearly to present papers, catch up on business and plan their next peer to peer collaboration. In my last post, I noted that my supervisor expects that networking *In Real Life* will constitute on of the reasons why it’s so important to attend education conferences. So much so, that when I recently applied for heavily discounted tickets to the PESGB 50th anniversary Oxford conference, I made sure I leaned heavily on the aspect of networking; stating a direct correlation between relationship building and successful pedagogical practice which forms the bedrock of my research. As such, placing a priority on forming relations, networks and contacts with other researchers, both in real space and online, brings about an opportunity to coherently frame my interests that I would never experience were I to spend the next three years simply taking notes.

I guess what my supervisor is urging me towards is less a vision of reading and writing, alone (and possibly by candlelight) and more towards a direct and dynamic engagement – let’s call it discussion – with another.

Birthday plans…sort of

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Well this is exciting.

It looks like I’ll be attending ECER’s 2015 education conference in Budapest next year, (my supervisor’s handed me the leaflet, it’s official). My goal here is not to present my own paper, but to network at the emerging researcher days (7th-8th September) held just before the main event. Is it ridiculous that I’m excited that my first international conference also falls on my birthday?

Tuesday night is Philosophy night

BA degree certificate

Last Tuesday, AF35 was home to West Yorkshire’s branch of the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain (PESGB). I hadn’t had much reason to be on campus this week and despite the bitter wind and rain, was excited to hear a paper given by my supervisor. Unfortunately, most of the confirmed attendees had sent their apologies leaving Amanda with only three participants. Myself, Mary, a retired lecturer in Education studies, and Imran, a post grad MA writing up his dissertation. If Amanda was disappointed she hid it well and after urging us to help ourselves to the M&S luxury chocolate biscuits, proceeded to read excerpts from her paper on the dominance of measuring student satisfaction in Higher Education.

Despite only numbering three, we manage to keep talking for over the scheduled period, well the group did include me after all. We ponder the positioning of student as customer and the absurdity of trying to measure student satisfaction with their education by asking about the mini bus service or IT facilities. Inspired by Amanda’s choice of using the differing teaching figures in The History Boys, we think about the duality of purpose in ensuring students meet routine expectations for standards whilst still being inspired in their learning. We also think about the subtle process of the university tutorial, about both students and tutors settling for answers found in the marking criteria and for a guilty satisfaction in knowing how much is needed to be done and no further.

It comes down to, as it always does, the question of what is education for? I hated the supervision process during my first year at York, I felt inadequate, empty of inspiration and always a little bit broken. I slowly learned the basics of writing and researching, although it was empty of any joy. If you had asked me what education was for at this point, I would have replied that it wasn’t for me. And despite engaging with a few modules, always taught by passionate, eccentric visiting lecturers, I declined any suggestion of pursuing an MA in medieval studies escaping into the world of restaurants and bars, of exhausting ten hour service shifts and the ability to mix killer mojitos. This was my real education I told myself but it wasn’t long before I was drawn back to university to apply for and achieve a PGCE. I told anyone who would care to listen that this was about money, you couldn’t make a decent living on a catering wage but really, try telling that to all the line chefs who spend their lives achieving enormous satisfaction from creating a demi-glace from roasted beef bones or perfectly chiffonading their parsley. I was highly dissatisfied with the way higher education had ‘treated me’ so far and I was going back for more.

Amanda’s etymological distinctions between ‘conversation’ [ to turn with] and ‘discussion’ [to break apart,] as the basis for tutorial dialogue, helped me to understand how my university experiences could be defined. A ‘conversation’ is said to be a settling, restrictive experience; a student might ask what she needs to do to achieve a grade wherein the tutor will respond by giving her the information according to the grading criteria. This is dialogue disguised as monologue, where two voices exist side by side yet never truly engaging with the substance of the Other’s intention. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with this approach, it exists to provide just the sort of security a nervous student needs. However, if we ask whether the purpose of education is to provide safety in thinking we can be justified for raising an eyebrow.

In Amanda’s ‘discussion’ for instance, educational talk isn’t limited to grading criteria. Discussion is an  unsettling process, it disrupts the confines of singular intention – what do I need to do to achieve a good grade – and require that the student speaks in dialogue with their tutor. These educative conversational experiences are richer, more fully dimensional and more ontologically aware then their conversational counterpart. It is in the nature of the I-thou aspect of Martin Buber’s theory of relationships with the Other, that does not objectify but acknowledges a living spiritual relationship that discussion is rooted in. It is Amanda’s assertion that we measure real, genuine satisfaction through the number of these types of educative relationships, not through ratings given to accountability and service level agreements. But if we are to be unsettled then does that mean we must always be in unhappy struggle?

On reflection, although I became a researcher during my first year at York, I have to say that those moments of genuine enjoyment during my undergraduate programme came when I was able to take part in heartfelt discussion. In becoming unsettled time and time again, I lost my old fearful self and was remade, as a medieval spiritualist researcher, as a post-colonial writer, as a Romanticist, each identity slipping over me as comfortably as much loved dress. That personal I-thou as opposed to I-it relationship, missing from my earlier tutors, made all the difference. Unfortunately those experiences were too few and far between but were those I immediately recognised later in my education and relished as giving me an intensely satisfactory, unsatisfaction.