A recent study, "What Makes Great Teaching," published by the Sutton Trust and Durham University in the UK, identified a number of commonly supported educational practices for which there is little or no scientific evidence.
Among the report’s examples of teaching techniques whose efficacy is not supported by research evidence were the widely discredited idea of "learning styles," as well as commonly used practices like "ability grouping" and "discovery learning." Even more surprising for many readers, perhaps, was the inclusion of "Use praise lavishly" in the list of questionable strategies. It is likely to be surprising because praise for students is seen as inherently affirming and beneficial by many people and is a core element of a positive philosophy of teaching, coaching, and parenting. In a similar way, criticism is now frequently condemned for being negative and harmful.
There are school programs and sports organisations based explicitly on the dual premises of plenty of praise and minimal criticism. And the rationale for this is usually that praise bolsters self-esteem and criticism harms it. In effect, this is the "gas gauge" theory of self-esteem, in which praise fills up the tank with good feelings and social approval, and criticism drains it.
How can one not applaud the movement towards more positive approaches to education and sports? Especially for young people, these settings should be joyous, exciting experiences, and we know from vast amounts of research evidence from the United States and elsewhere that this is not always the case (link) (link).
We know, for example, that bullying, harassment, and abuse still hide in dark corners, and that far too many parents, coaches, and teachers confuse infant needs with adult wants and infant games with professional competitions. We also know that such behaviors drive children away from engagement in and enjoyment of these pursuits because young people, if not all adults, know that learning, playing sports, and taking part in other activities are supposed to be fun.
Consider sports specifically for a moment. Research from the United States suggests that sports participation drops by 30 percent each year after age 10. According to a report from the National Alliance for Youth Sports, over 70 percent of children drop out of organized sports by age 13.
Numerous studies report that many children are put off participating in sports by an over-emphasis on winning and that this effect is especially strong among girls. Children are too often presented with a narrow and uninspiring range of opportunities, and while many love team games and athletic events, others find these traditional forms of physical activity either irrelevant, boring, or upsetting.
Remember: this pattern of children dropping out from sports is happening as the health and happiness of young people are being compromised by unprecedented levels of physical inactivity. With activity levels low, and predicted to go even lower, we cannot afford to turn children off sports, and the movement toward more positive athletic experiences is undoubtedly a movement in the right direction.
There is a danger, though, in embracing praise as wholeheartedly and unconditionally as some parents, coaches, and teachers seem to have done.
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. Psychologist Carol Dweck has carried out some of the most valuable research in this regard. In one study from 1998, fifth-graders were asked to solve a set of moderately difficult mathematical problems and were given praise that focused either on their ability ("You did really well; you're so clever") or on their hard work ("You did really well; you must have tried really hard’). The children were then asked to complete a set of more difficult challenges and were led to believe that they had been unsuccessful. The researchers found that the children who had been given effort-based praise were more likely to show willingness to work out new approaches. They also showed more resilience and tended to attribute failure to lack of effort, not lack of ability. The children who had been praised for their intelligence tended to choose tasks that confirmed what they already knew, displayed less resilience when problems got harder, and worried more about failure.
What many might consider a commonsense approach—praising the child for being smart, clever, or "a natural"—turned out to be an ineffective strategy. The initial thrill of a compliment soon gave way to a drop in self-esteem, motivation, and overall performance. And this was the result of just one sentence of praise.
Some researchers have argued that praise that is intended to be encouraging and affirming of low-attaining students actually conveys a message of low expectations. In fact, 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. They claim:
“Praise for successful performance on an easy task can be interpreted by a student as evidence that the teacher has a low perception of his or her ability. As a consequence, it can actually lower rather than enhance self-confidence. Criticism following poor performance can, under some circumstances, be interpreted as an indication of the teacher's high perception of the student's ability.”
So, at the least, the perception that praise is good for children and criticism is bad needs a serious rethink: Praise can hinder rather than help development and learning if given inappropriately. Criticism offered cautiously and wisely can be empowering.
These findings would seem to call for a reconsideration of a very widely held belief among teachers and coaches that they should avoid making negative or critical comments, and that if they must do so, then they should counter-balance a single criticism with three, four, or even five pieces of praise. This assumption is clearly based on the "gas gauge" model of self-esteem described earlier, viewing any negative comment as necessarily damaging, and requiring positive comments to be heaped around it in order to offset the harm.
I am unaware of any convincing evidence that criticism or negative feedback necessarily causes any harm to children's self-esteem. Of course, abusive comments and personal insults may well do so, but these are obviously inappropriate and unacceptable behaviours. Well-chosen criticism, delivered in an environment of high expectations and unconditional support, can inspire learning and development, whilst poorly judged praise can do more harm than good. Even relatively young children can tell the difference between constructive and destructive criticism, and it is a serious and unhelpful error to conflate the two.
We actually know quite a lot about effective feedback, and that knowledge is summarised nicely by the educational researcher John Hattie:
"To be effective, feedback needs to be clear, purposeful, meaningful, and compatible with students’ prior knowledge, and to provide logical connections.”
I suggest that it would be extremely difficult to deliver feedback that is clear, purposeful, etc. in the context of voluminous praise. Eventually, the parent, teacher, or coach simply ends up making vague, meaningless or tenuous platitudes. And this can cause more damage to the learner-teacher relationship than criticism.
The psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz describes a conversation he had with a school teacher named Charlotte Stiglitz—the mother of the Nobel prize–winning economist Joseph Stiglitz:
"I don't praise a small child for doing what they ought to be able to do," she said. "I praise them when they do something really difficult—like sharing a toy or showing patience. I also think it is important to say 'thank you,' … but I wouldn't praise a child who is playing or reading.”
Grosz watched as a four-year-old Stiglitz showed her a picture he had been drawing. She did not do what many would have done (including me when I taught this age group) and immediately praise such a lovely drawing. Instead, she had an unhurried conversation with the child about his picture. “She observed, she listened. She was present,” Grosz noted.
I think Stephen Grosz’s conclusion from this seemingly everyday event is correct and important: Being present for children builds their confidence by demonstrating that they are listened to. Being present avoids an inherent risk associated with excessive praise, as with any type of reward, that the praise becomes an end in itself and the activity is merely a means to that end. When that happens, learning, achievement, and the love of learning are compromised.
Praise is like sugar. Used too liberally or in an inappropriate way, it spoils. But used carefully and sparingly, it can be a wonderful thing!