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What a Balinese dancing queen taught me about praise and encouragement

Sunday, July 11th, 2010

It dawned on me in 2005. I was in Bali working with a renowned dance teacher every day for two hours to learn an intricate, difficult dance. I realized that if she told me that what I was doing was great, I would do the dance again and again and again for her out of sheer enthusiasm. And in doing it again and again, it would get even better.

After our lesson, I reflected on my response to my teacher’s praise and how I’d responded to criticism in the past. In a flash of self-understanding, I realized: If I’m doing something I love and you tell me I’m doing great work, I will work sooooooo hard! However, if you tell me that I’m doing terrible, I want to stop working and die.

Ever since, I’ve held this realization close to my heart. But now that I’m learning about all this new research about praise, I’m wondering: Is something wrong with me? Am I a praise junkie? Why am I so sensitive to what my teachers tell me?

When teachers have told me that I was doing bad work, or even worse, that “I didn’t have what it takes,” I would spend hours and hours of mental energy processing those statements. If I am so bad at X, how was I accepted into program Y? Am I so bad that I deserve to be placed with other students who really don’t seem to care? If I am incapable of achieving XYZ, how is it that I was able to achieve ABC? And on and on.

But now I’m realizing that those hours of processing negative messages never helped me learn a single note or dance move or improve in any way. In fact, some of those teachers’ discouraging statements led me to spend months or even years avoiding my true heart’s desire—or pursuing my true heart’s desire in utter solitude—out of fear that I was essentially inadequate.

In contrast, when I eagerly danced over and over for my Balinese teacher, I honestly don’t think I was seeking the reward of praise or avoiding the punishment of a scathing critique. I believe that her encouraging praise really fed my own intrinsic motivation. Maybe her praise couldn’t “hurt” me because I was intrinsically motivated. (Sort of like how the Book It Pizza Hut pizzas could never dim my love of reading.)

On the other hand, I notice a pattern when I look at the withering “feedback” that distracted me and discouraged me:
“You’ll never achieve…”
“You will never be able to …”
“You aren’t going to attend school for ….”
“I really don’t see you as [having the career you desire] but [in a completely unrelated career]”
“You think you know how to do X but what you’re doing is not X at all…”

These statements didn’t give me any clear direction on what to do differently to improve! What could I do to achieve my dreams? What did I need to learn to prepare for school? If I really didn’t know a technique or skill, how could I acquire it?

Those statements did not answer those questions. They were just judgment. They did not provide guidance, except perhaps “guidance” to abandon my dreams. (Needless to say, I never speak to my students this way.)

Then I remember my teacher in Bali. She did not come from a culture of excessive praise and self-esteem boosting. I believe in my heart that she really believed that I was doing well. She wasn’t just trying to make me feel good.

But now I realize that when she told me I was doing well, she wasn’t just praising me. She was engaging with me. She was going to continue to help me to grow and improve. But the other teachers’ statements were statements of disengagement. They were no longer interested (or able?) to help me grow and improve.

So maybe what really matters is engagement.

DSCN0433
Dancing with my awesome Balinese dance teacher, IGA Raka

Related Posts:
The Power of Praise (#1)
Tips on Effective Praise from Ashley Merryman
Toning Down the Praise: Experiment #1
Toning Down the Praise: Experiment #2 (I am going through praise withdrawal)

Topics: motivation, praise

12 Comments on “What a Balinese dancing queen taught me about praise and encouragement”

  • Jess Steinman on July 12th 8:53 am

    Hi Rebecca! :)

    Wow, what food for thought this blog is! I’ve been following your blogs talking about the new research on praise, but your experience with your Balinese dance teacher got me thinking about my experiences with praise as I was learning a new skill, technique, activity, etc..

    I believe that genuine praise and engaging with the student – like your teacher did – is not only beneficial, but it helps the student to create a positive association with the skill or technique. For example, when I was in high school in studying music, I had wonderful teachers who knew how to engage the students, share praise when it was (for lack of a better term) “earned”, and also were very honest that they were not “gurus” – they didn’t have all the answers, but they’d share what they DID know.

    When I decided to pursue music in college, I came up against a good majority of teachers who used little to no praise – and sometimes, downright criticism. Also, quite a few of them insisted that it was “their way or the highway”, and that if I didn’t come back to the next class or lesson with it learned “right”, that it would significantly reduce my grade for the semester. As you might imagine, this created a VERY negative association with the new skills and techniques I was learning, and also, made me much more likely to be hard on myself. I can remember leaving the practice rooms many times feeling frustrated or angry with myself because I couldn’t get this or that “just right”.

    In fact, it took coming home from college on a medical leave, and returning to study voice with my teacher from high school, to get me to enjoy making music again! This experience taught me so much about using praise and engaging the student – not patronizing or using false praise, but genuine encouragement – and how, I believe, it can only benefit the student.

    So, that’s just my “two cents”, but I wanted to share with you and say thank you again for the food for thought!

    ~ Jess

  • Rebecca Zook on July 18th 9:36 pm

    Jess, it totally made my day to see your super thoughtful comment! I’m really sorry that you had those negative and discouraging experiences. I think it’s totally weird in the classical music world–*everyone* has to work hard to master the material, but somehow a lot of teachers put the focus on “intrinsic talent” as opposed to “how can I help you learn this.”

    I’m really glad you were able to have a healing experience and enjoy making music again. I have struggled with recovering from extremely negative learning situations too, and one of the most helpful things I’ve found is the book Effortless Mastery by Kenny Werner. Have you read it? Also, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron is also really great.

    Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your two cents!! I am so glad you are reading!! :)

  • Marie on July 21st 12:02 pm

    Rebecca,

    “I think it’s totally weird in the classical music world–*everyone* has to work hard to master the material, but somehow a lot of teachers put the focus on “intrinsic talent” as opposed to “how can I help you learn this.” ”

    That is why I love teaching Suzuki cello. It’s the complete opposite philosophy. :)

    And you’re awesome, fyi.

  • Rebecca Zook on July 22nd 4:02 pm

    Marie, thanks for stopping by!! I’d love to hear more about your reflections on the Suzuki learning process, so please keep piping up in the comments, or if you start your own blog, let me know so I can read it! :)

  • sean on July 31st 1:26 am

    I agree completely. To have success in tutoring, there needs to be constant positive re-enforcement. If you tell them they’re doing well enough times, they begin to believe it. When their attitude changes, it’s amazing how quickly they improve no matter what the subject is.

  • Marie on August 6th 4:39 pm

    Rebecca,

    I just finished reading a very interesting and thought-provoking essay on feedback, positive vs negative, it’s function, etc. Unfortunately, it’s in a book but I’ll gladly scan it and email it to you if you’re interested. But I definitely recommend this book. Even though it’s titled Intelligent Music Teaching, it definitely applies to all education. It has lots of math examples too!

  • Rebecca Zook on August 8th 6:25 pm

    Marie, thanks so much for thinking of me! I would *love* to read that!!!

  • Rebecca Zook on August 8th 6:33 pm

    Sean, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I do agree that it helps students immensely to get positive feedback and be in a positive learning environment. I strive to create a positive environment in each tutoring session.

    However, I do not believe in praising students constantly, because it actually undermines student motivation and achievement. I also don’t tell students that they’re doing well unless they actually *are*, because giving inaccurate feedback does not help the learning process. There’s also a difference between praise and encouragement.

    I think the most important thing is to stay engaged with the student. That’s what I was trying to address with this post. When my dance teacher stayed engaged and kept helping me, that was probably more encouraging than any verbal feedback I received. What mattered was that she kept trying and persisted, and that really made me believe in myself.

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  • Laura on October 1st 1:53 pm

    I just love that you learned these dance steps. Your posts aren’t just useful, they’re inspiring.

  • Rebecca Zook on October 2nd 11:28 am

    Aw, thank you so much, Laura! I’m really happy to “meet” you here! Larua, I feel so silly, when I saw your comment the first time, I just saw “Laura” and the picture of you and your dog and I didn’t realize that you were Laura Grace Wheldon who I already know! I feel so bad about this total blog faux pas of not recognizing you! I am so sorry! And thank you so much for stopping by and reading – I’m really happy to see you here and reconnect. Sending you a big hug!!

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