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.