Student Well-Being Opinion

The Best Type of Praise

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — January 14, 2016 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

As educators, expectations and achievement remain front and center. This arena is not limited to teachers and students. It extends to leaders with teachers and to leaders and teachers with parents. It exists in formal evaluations and informal communications. Expectations and student achievement are a bottom line focus in schools and are paramount in the thinking of adults in them.

Feel-Good Phrases That Don’t Work
The intention to praise a teacher for a job well done can have the opposite effect from the one intended. Recently, a teacher shared this story with us. In his 20th year of teaching advanced math courses with very successful results as measured by test scores, he was becoming frustrated with the skills and abilities of the students who were entering his classes. Now, in addition to his strategies that had long helped his students be successful, he had to develop gap-filling strategies to bring students up to speed. His results were still considered excellent, but more students were not living up to his hopes and expectations.

Following an observation from his principal, he found himself disheartened. In the follow-up to the observation, he was told he was “doing a great job, he was a great teacher, and he should feel confident in what he was doing.” But when he asked, specifically, how he might do a better job with those who don’t seem as prepared or engaged as students in the past, the principal replied, “Just keep doing what you are doing. You are doing a great job.”

It was a missed opportunity on the part of the principal. The teacher had shared a sincere concern and posed an open request to learn how to become a better teacher for a broader spectrum of students. The well-meaning praise did nothing to make him feel good about his teaching, and the moment for a professional conversation about growth was gone. With exchanges like this happening between principal and teacher, we can easily see how it can also happen between a teacher and a student.

Know What to Praise
Praise is certainly not a bad thing, but knowing what to praise and when makes the difference. Carol Dweck’s research teaches more than mindset. In her 1999 article entitled “Caution-Praise Can Be Dangerous!”, Dweck argues that one sentence of praise can have “powerful and pervasive effects.” Students are extremely sensitive and, from the interactions and experiences they have with adults, lasting beliefs about their own personal qualities are formed and reinforced. “The kinds of praise (and criticism) students receive from their teachers and parents tell them how to think about what they do--and what they are.”

This is not to say that we shouldn’t praise students. We can praise as much as we please when they learn or do well, but we should wax enthusiastic about their strategies, not about how their performance reveals an attribute they are likely to view as innate and beyond their control. We can rave about their effort, their concentration, the effectiveness of their study strategies, the interesting ideas they came up with, the way they followed through. We can ask them questions that show an intelligent appreciation of their work and what they put into it. We can enthusiastically discuss with them what they learned. This of course requires more from us than simply telling them that they are smart, but it is much more appreciative of their work, much more constructive... (Dweck)

It Takes More Than Time
It is easy to say “Good job” or “You are really smart” to express approval of the work of a child or an adult. It takes just seconds. It expresses thoughts and feelings. But we now know it does not produce the intended or sustainable results. Flattery does not contribute to self-confidence. It is shallow and is easily detectable as such. We do not see flattery as motivating for gap closing or rising achievement. Nor do we find it increases the number of students who are confident in themselves as learners. Flattery and the acknowledgment of progress are not the same. Taking the cue from Carol Dweck’s research, we can

  • rave about their effort, their concentration, the effectiveness of their study strategies, the interesting ideas they came up with, or the way they followed through,
  • ask them questions that show an intelligent appreciation of their work and what they put into it,
  • enthusiastically discuss with them what they learned.

These are observations of the way a child ... or adult ... engaged with a problem or challenge. It speaks to the observer’s attention to them and their efforts, the how they worked through something and the way they triumphed. The forthright discussion of a disappointing performance is just as important. If a child or adult failed at an attempt at something, the observer’s capacity to describe the strengths in strategy, concentration, and follow-through contributes to nudging them forward to try again.The intention to encourage leaders, teachers, and students to continue growing as learners is deeply held by most. The kind of praise used makes a difference. A quick, “good job” can communicate approval and can be important to the learner, but it does little, if anything, to build self-confidence and ability in the recipient. The difference we can make is in seeing the other. In this sense, praise has both an emotional and intellectual effect. If we can step back and observe the way a learner arrived at a conclusion or an action and reflect back to them our recognition of the methods used, we contribute to their own understanding of themselves as learners. If we simply approve of or label their success...well, certainly Carol Dweck’s research can finish this sentence for us.

Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or by Email.

Illustration courtesy of 123rf

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.