Confession: I am going through frequent praise withdrawal. I’ve learned that frequent praise, paradoxically, can undermine student motivation. So I’ve been trying to tone down the amount of praise I give and really hold my applause for the end.
I was discussing what I’ve been learning about praise with my friend, The Future Dr Jones, and she asked, “Why are you so willing to throw out your own beliefs about praise? Why are you so whole-heartedly embracing this new research that says that frequent praise is bad, when your own experience indicates that your students seem to respond well to frequent praise?”
Well, I used to believe that praise helps students relax and gain confidence. I used to believe that, a la How to Make Friends and Influence People, you should praise even the slightest improvement when you’re encouraging someone.
But it goes deeper than that. Praise was part of my way of giving students near-constant feedback—when they got something wrong, I would tell them, kindly, right away. And when they got something right, I would tell them with praise.
On a deeper level, I used praise to convey my enthusiasm for the topic and my enthusiasm for my students. It was a way for me to say, “Welcome to my world! I’m really excited to be working with you, I want to learn all about how you learn, and I’m eager to help you improve!”
But in light of this recent research, I’ve been experimenting with giving my students less praise, and sometimes I’ve felt like an ogre.
For some reason, changing my verbal behavior by praising less seemed to change my whole demeanor. When I held back my praise I felt like I was holding back myself and my energy. I felt like a cold, detached meanie (at least in comparison to the formally normative praise-a-thon).
I’ve been looking for a way to convey my enthusiasm for my students and their learning and feel free to share my own energy without jacking up their brain circuitry with excessive praise.
So I was totally relieved to realize, while reading Doug Lemov’s excellent book, Teach Like a Champion, that praise and feedback are different things. I had been conflating the two. Previously, so much of my feedback was praise that, when I cut back on praise, I also was cutting back on all feedback without realizing it.
Kids need feedback. They need to know they’re on the right track, even if it’s only at the end of a problem. (And as a teacher, I need to feel comfortable giving feedback!)
In the space of two brilliant paragraphs titled “Right answers: don’t flatter; don’t fuss,” Lemov summarizes the current research on praise (number one, praising kids too strongly can perversely show that “you’re surprised they got the answer right”; number two, praising kids for their intelligence discourages them from taking risks) and then offers this guidance:
…in most cases when a student gets an answer correct, acknowledge that the student has done the work correctly or has worked hard; then move on: “That’s right, Noah. Nice work.” Champion teachers show their students they expect both right and wrong to happen by not making too big a deal of either. (223)
So, feedback, like, “yes,” “that’s correct,” “that’s right,” is totally fine. I can say those words as frequently as I want, as long as they’re true!
Praise, like “great,” “awesome,” “excellent,” should be used less frequently. As Lemov points out, “Of course, there will be times when you want to sprinkle in stronger praise (‘Such an insightful answer, Carla. Awesome’). Just do so carefully so that such praise isn’t diluted by overuse.”
What a relief!