01 November 2014

Newsflash: unquestioning praise considered harmful!

I have found myself for years defending the teaching profession against what I saw as unwarranted attacks. People accused the culture of praise in modern schooling as being namby-pamby liberal nonsense. I tried to explain there was a good body of evidence behind it.

But news came this week of a report rubbishing the practice.

Perhaps my mistake was in trying to educate the lay people rather than the teachers. You see, most teachers didn't get it, not because individually they aren't bright, motivated professionals, but because the news came to them filtered through layers of management, focus groups and in-service training teams, each of which reinterpreted what the last had told them in a great game of academic Chinese whispers.

The message that reached the teachers wasn't the message that the psychological studies had given, but something completely different: "Always encourage! Never criticise!" I never believed that could work. I have always hated praise or encouragement when I don't understand something. The difference between me and a "bad learner" is that when this happens, I don't lose faith in myself -- I lose faith in the teacher. (And I have lost a lot of faith in a lot of teachers over the many years I've spent in full-time and part-time education.)

No, the advice was more subtle and nuanced than that.

As I recall it, the observation came first with misbehaving children. It was noted in classroom observations (carefully managed studies involving timing of teacher-pupil interactions) that teachers spent a lot more time berating misbehaving children than they did praising them when they behaved well. There is a school of thought that sees most children's misbehaviour as a call for attention, and by giving children more attention for misbehaving than behaving, on a certain level you reward the bad behaviour. The theory was that by increasing contact time during periods of good behaviour, you would reinforce the fact that good behaviour leads to adult approval.

But it went further than that. The observers noted that the teachers' response to a misbehaving child just wasn't positive at all. There was visible relief, and the teachers would actually draw attention to the child's normal poor behaviour. By doing so, the researchers claimed, they were establishing the teachers' low expectations, and undermining the pupils' confidence.

Now, can anyone really argue against the idea that we should show kids that we appreciate their good behaviour? Does anyone think that showing a kid that us adults have identified them as a "problem child" has any possible benefits? I doubt it.

So far, so uncontroversial.

But the follow-up to this was that researchers identified similar patterns with children that didn't necessarily misbehave, but just weren't doing well. Criticism for getting it wrong, implied criticism on the occasions they do get it right.

I still think we're in pretty uncontroversial territory here, because the advice is still pretty straightforward: when an underperforming child finally answers a question right, don't say "Thank God! At last you've got one right!"

And, in fact, the most uncontroversial advice from the experts was to smile as you say it, because they saw teachers who never smiled at a correct answer from an underperforming pupil.

The experts were not calling for uncritical, undeserving praise.

How does that translate into the classroom?

Well, a couple of years ago, I was teaching English in a French university. The French (like the Italians and the Spanish) believe themselves to be incapable of learning languages. I also had the challenge of an extremely mixed-ability first year group in the law faculty, everything from people with no previous experience of English to people I could have sat and talked to for an hour or two without problems. Imagine trying to teach a room of 20+ in that situation. It was not fun.

Often trying to get answers felt like trying to get blood from a stone, and when I finally got a good answer from some of them, the relief was palpable...

... and that was it. I had caught myself falling into the trap that the experts warned about. My attitude was more or less "why couldn't you have said that in the first place?!?" and it was all too obvious. The students were reluctant to give answers, and when they did give them, I did nothing to bolster their confidence.

What I had to do wasn't a simple matter of giving out "well done" stickers, but a complete change in my attitude to the students. I was seeing them as obstacles, as problems, when the problem was the circumstance, and my reaction to it. It was easier to see this as a situation that I could do nothing about than to actually do something.

So I set about the task of finding material that was suitable for everyone (and to a great extent succeeded), but more importantly, I changed my attitude to my students. Instead of feeling relieved when I finally got the correct answer, I felt happy. Instead of dropping my shoulders and saying "why didn't you say that earlier?" I smiled and said "of course! I told you you knew it"... until I had built such a rapport with them that I could start dropping my shoulders again and saying "why didn't you say that earlier?"

Which brings us back to the report, and the suggestion that invariable praise projects low expectations onto the students.

In the end, whatever I did was projecting my expectations onto the students. I always had higher expectations of the students than they had of themselves. But my projection had to satisfy two criteria for the students to accept it: it had to be realistic based on their ability, and it had to be close to their own expectations.

If a student's confidence is five steps behind their ability, there's no point in projecting a confidence that matches their ability -- you have to project one that's one step ahead of theirs, and slowly bring up their confidence.


Random Review said...

Sometimes you feel relief simply because you worry that your job is on the line if they don't learn and you were starting to feel scared when they weren't getting it. It's really hard to hide that.

Nìall Beag said...

True. However, either way, it communicates your expectation that they were going to answer wrong. It needs a complete change of mindset, which is easier said than done.

Frank said...

I think we in discussions like these often forget that the education system is very conservative in its structure. We are forced to go to school from let´s say 8 to 15 o´clock. We are attending very different classes on the same day. Do human beings learn efficiently when they are forced to learn english, german, chemistry, mathematics etc. in a classroom on the same day. ?

I did not learn that much from sitting in a classroom listening to the teacher speaking german at 9 o´clock every wednesday. I would rather do(learn other useful) other things at that time.

Polyglots are talking much about what is the best way to learn a language and how to find your own methods and and be motivated. But polyglots often forget to discuss the overall structure of the education system. That is a shame. Instead they/we are often focusing on how a teacher can become a language tutor or coach. Of course that is great, but if I´m not motivated to learn german every wednesday 9 o´clock and english from 11 o´clock........... then what ? And maybe I hate german ? Not because the teacher is bad, but because I´m not motivated. And maybe I think germans are idiots and german culture sucks. Maybe I want to learn russian instead, but I can´t avoid german if I want to go to the university. Then what ?