Those Educators…

… well, I have to admit that I tire of educrats who think they know how things work when they don’t (work). So I like this piece by Michael Alison Chandler. False praise is a disease. Encouragement is important, but explaining how progress is happening is even better.

For decades, the prevailing wisdom in education was that high self-esteem would lead to high achievement. The theory led to an avalanche of daily affirmations, awards ceremonies and attendance certificates — but few, if any, academic gains.

Now, an increasing number of teachers are weaning themselves from what some call empty praise. Drawing on psychology and brain research, these educators aim to articulate a more precise, and scientific, vocabulary for praise that will push children to work through mistakes and take on more challenging assignments. Consider teacher Shar Hellie’s new approach in Montgomery County….

A growing body of research over three decades shows that easy, unearned praise does not help students but instead interferes with significant learning opportunities. As schools ratchet up academic standards for all students, new buzzwords are “persistence,” “risk-taking” and “resilience” — each implying more sweat and strain than fuzzy, warm feelings.

“We used to think we could hand children self-esteem on a platter,” Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck said. “That has backfired.”

Dweck’s studies, embraced in Montgomery schools and elsewhere, have found that praising children for intelligence — “You’re so clever!” — also backfires. In study after study, children rewarded for being smart become more likely to shy away from hard assignments that might tarnish their star reputations.

But children praised for trying hard or taking risks tend to enjoy challenges and find greater success. Children also perform better in the long term when they believe that their intellect is not a birthright but something that grows and develops as they learn new things….

Michelle A. Rhee, the former D.C. schools chancellor, often recounts a story about how her daughters’ many soccer trophies are warping their sense of their athletic abilities. Her daughters “suck at soccer,” she said in a radio interview for Marketplace last January.

“We’ve become so obsessed with making kids feel good about themselves that we’ve lost sight of building the skills they need to actually be good at things,” Rhee said.




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  • Fred

    This is interesting, Scot. Thanks. Here’s your smiley face: 🙂

  • Bob Arnet

    I agree with the premise that the belief that everyone gets a trophy for every event they enter does not benefit the child. I would point out that this did not originate in schools though. It worked it’s way into schools from parents pushing for theirs kids getting awards whether they deserve them or not. It all started in little league and youth soccer leagues years ago.

  • Jon G

    Just saw and reposted this yesterday. It seems timely:

  • Val

    Praising the child not the behaviour is what causes girls to lose confidence in High School. When they were in primary, they got praised for being good (not doing something good). Once they got older, they didn’t know how to handle a failing grade/mark/test. They perceived the failure as an intrinsic part of themselves (I’m a failure, rather than I failed). As a teacher, I can’t wait for schools to allow us to fail children again, far to many are passed without meeting the minimal achievements, because we aren’t allowed to fail them for reasons x,y and z. What does this tell the parents and children? You don’t really have to know these steps? You don’t really have to work harder?

  • DanO

    I wonder how this phenomenon has affected Christian educators in higher ed. I know there is a temptation to give someone a better grade in order to salvage the student’s self-esteem. This is serious when we have freshmen who cannot spell or properly use grammar, much less develop an argument. Secondary schools can and are evaluated, rightly or wrongly, by test performances. But in a Christian college does anyone really look at how well a student does on their intro to the Bible papers?

    In colleges we see student evaluations and an easy grader can frequently get better reviews (now when one’s department head sits in on class it is easy to come across as more rigorous). Even though Paul says we should not think more highly of ourselves than we ought, I wonder in many Christian teachers are more concerned about our students thinking less of themselves than they ought. So giving a B on an average paper seems justified.

    One also wonders if adapting to the tough work of ministry is that much harder when one has had their esteem built from childhood through college but it has not been based on one’s accomplishments.

  • JohnM

    Also note how critical the article was of Michelle Rhee. My first thought is ‘What is so hard about accepting her point?’ Perhaps recognizing and valuing diversity of aptitudes is one of our educational systems strong points. Yet it may also be that creativity is overrated, at least at the level of primary education.

  • Susan N.

    This is such a complex issue… I’m reminded of John Holt’s two books, ‘How Children Learn’ and ‘How Children Fail.’

    Empty praise and external rewards are, ultimately, not effective at motivating anyone (child or adult) to work hard to achieve something. I, personally, distrust a particular variety of praise that smacks of gratuitous flattery. KWIM?

    In a 4-H leader training workshop that I attended recently, motivation and empowerment of the youth were discussed. Opportunities to learn and succeed have to be within reach (appropriate goals for the age- and ability-level of the youth — and I think this would speak to the quality of the curriculum, the teaching, and the learning environment in schools). Empowerment comes in providing the tools and guidance for success, then, and giving *specific* feedback on the outcome/results. We want the youth to learn to “self-evaluate” by reflecting on their own work, for the purpose of improving and advancing to the next level of achievement. If youth do not learn to do this for themselves, they become too overly dependent on adult leaders for motivation and assessing progress.

    No one in my household has achieved academic or professional success without a lot of hard work. I think it’s good for our children to know (see) that achievement and success comes with hard work, and often involves failing and trying again. That’s real life.

    There are some aspects of personhood, however, that, imho, *do* need to be affirmed. Tall/short, “large-boned”/petite, curly-/straight-haired, extroverted/introverted, etc., etc., are aspects of one’s identity that can defy the social/cultural “ideal.” I hope that my kids learn to love those parts of themselves which form their unique identities.