When too much praise is counterproductive

3 min read

The world of education is constantly changing, and over my 20 years in teaching there has been a general shift towards praising a child as a means to motivating them. This has been a hugely positive move in my view: at my Grammar School in the early 1980’s, most teachers ruled over the boys by fear and occasional casual violence; by the time I moved to a more forward-thinking comprehensive in the late 1980’s, I personally responded far better to the praise, encouragement and positive feedback offered on a routine basis.

So it’s interesting today to read of the study by The Sutton Trust suggesting that praise can in fact be counterproductive. Unlike Christine Blower, leader of the National Union of Teachers who dismisses this as faddy thinking, I think this is in fact an important piece of research and one that concurs with discussions I have had with some of my colleagues over the years.

Here’s the issue: children know for themselves whether or not they have done a good piece of work. Therefore they know when to expect praise, and when to expect criticism. They are anticipating it. Here’s where it can go wrong:

If a child is expecting praise and it is not received. Your child spends two evenings on their history project, but then it’s not marked for a month, or worse, ever. This is not common but does occur in teaching from time to time – and we all remember when it does.

If a child has done a poor piece of work but gets praised all the same. This is VERY COMMON, especially amongst low-achievers where a teacher might be grateful just to get any work at all from them. The issue is, the child is receiving praise on what they know is a poor piece of work. It has two results:

1) It lowers expectations
2) It makes all future praise meaningless. When the child does produce a great piece of work, where do you go?
3) It erases confidence. Children like to know where they stand.
4) It sets them up badly for the future – the “real world” it’s so often called.

So how should we deliver praise and criticism? The answer is to target our praise. In the same way that we should criticise specifics, it’s no use saying to a child, “that’s really good!” without explaining what is making it good. “It’s fantastic that you have set out your working exactly as expected” or “You’ve clearly learned how to accurately estimate angles” is specific and can also be balanced with areas to work on.

And if a piece of work is not good enough, it is fine to ask them to do it again. Not all of it, but the areas that need improving. My own son, who is 6 and in year 2, has made fabulous improvements in his drawing this term. He is fortunate to have a highly-skilled teacher who, in studying Matisse with the class, has encouraged them to draft, and then re-draft their drawings five times, often using peer feedback, to the point where they produce work that they are truly proud of.

So, far from dismissing this study as “faddy and fashionable” and suggesting that “teachers know their students best” I’d like to see leaders such as Christine Blower actually engaging in the debate – the vast majority of teachers are more than happy to accept they’re not the finished article. There’s a lot to be learned from this!

For the original article, click here.

We’ve written similar articles to this in the past:
Maths: when giving help isn’t necessarily helpful
5 ways to raise your child’s self-esteem in maths
Why league tables have failed to raise standards
Choice vs Autonomy

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