I love Carol Dweck’s work and think Mindset should be required reading for educators, particularly as a guide to giving positive reinforcement to students. To summarize briefly, she describes how important a growth rather than fixed mindset is to children in determining how much they learn. If they love difficulty and challenge, if they say not, “Oh no, this will be hard” but “Oh boy, this will be hard,” their progress is likely to be not just steep but sustained.
Just as importantly, if we praise students for being “smart,” she has demonstrated, we risk making students risk-averse. They step back from the challenges that will help them grow because of the fear that failing will make them no longer smart.
My summary of Dweck is insufficiently brief here because I assume many or most are familiar with it already. But I wanted to share with you some other outstanding resources on the topic of positive reinforcement because there’s obviously more to it than just building a growth mindset.
One of the biggest challenges educators face in using positive reinforcement is maintaining the sincerity of their praise. That is, in our effort to be positive and encouraging we risk “praise fatigue” where everything is “awesome” (and therefore nothing is) and where our praise becomes disingenuous, and even in some cases achieves the opposite effect from what we desired.
Po Bronson described this potential situation–and some of the research behind it in a 2007 article in New York Magazine that is still the very best article I have read on the topic of positive reinforcement. Here’s one especially critical passage:
Sincerity of praise is also crucial. Just as we can sniff out the true meaning of a backhanded compliment or a disingenuous apology, children, too, scrutinize praise for hidden agendas. Only young children—under the age of 7—take praise at face value: Older children are just as suspicious of it as adults.
Psychologist Wulf-Uwe Meyer, a pioneer in the field, conducted a series of studies where children watched other students receive praise. According to Meyer’s findings, by the age of 12, children believe that earning praise from a teacher is not a sign you did well—it’s actually a sign you lack ability and the teacher thinks you need extra encouragement. And teens, Meyer found, discounted praise to such an extent that they believed it’s a teacher’s criticism—not praise at all—that really conveys a positive belief in a student’s aptitude.
…New York University professor of psychiatry Judith Brook explains that the issue for parents is one of credibility. “Praise is important, but not vacuous praise,” she says. “It has to be based on a real thing—some skill or talent they have.” Once children hear praise they interpret as meritless, they discount not just the insincere praise, but sincere praise as well.
Scholars from Reed College and Stanford reviewed over 150 praise studies. Their meta-analysis determined that praised students become risk-averse and lack perceived autonomy. The scholars found consistent correlations between a liberal use of praise and students’ “shorter task persistence, more eye-checking with the teacher, and inflected speech such that answers have the intonation of questions.”
Meyer’s research is especially important. Not only do we risk students tuning us out, we risk them interpreting our praise in the opposite way from what we intended when we overuse it and erode it’s legitimacy. And we risk doing this to those around us as well as ourselves. In short this means, to me at least, that how we praise is a school wide issue since it is in effect a shared-system we all use and rely upon and that is prone to hyper-inflation… a little coordinated monetary policy isn’t such a bad idea.
Bronson’s article also turned me on to the work of Roy Baumeister, by the way, whose article Re-Thinking Self-Esteem should also be required reading. (I’ve blogged previously about it here). It’s hugely important. As Bronson described, Baumeister set out to document the powers of self-esteem in a meta-study but found the claims about it were entirely unsupported by research. The opposite, in fact. Again, transformational reading.
So what is a teacher to do?
Two key ideas from Precise Praise section of Teach Like a Champion 2.0.
- Differentiate Acknowledgement from Praise–Acknowledgment is recognizing or thanking students who do what’s expected of them. It helps to make students feel appreciated when they do as they should. But it’s different from praise, which puts a value judgment on the action we are reinforcing that sets it out as exceptional. “You have your homework ready every day,” and “I appreciate you having your homework done every day” are examples of acknowledgment. They say to a student- I see that you are doing the things you need to do. But they don’t suggest that doing so is exceptional. “It’s awesome that you did your homework,” is an example of praise. The word “awesome” suggests that doing your homework is over and above, something worthy of exceptional notice. And that can be problematic because it makes it seem like you are surprised the student did their homework every day or that it wasn’t really your expectation that she would do it. Therefore the praise can have the effect of eroding the expectation, and that’s bad. This doesn’t mean you can’t praise of course. “Awesome job on your homework last night,” is a great thing to say- when the homework was truly exceptional and showed special insight or effort. In other words, acknowledgment is best to use when students meet expectations and praise is best saved for when they exceed them.
- Vary the form and content–One reason praise (and other forms of positive reinforcement) can seem disingenuous is because they feel “canned.” “Mr. Lemov always uses the same words, always calls out students just after lunch in front of the class.” Varying public with private reinforcement–whispering to a student (“that was very impressive”) sometimes–using different phrases and tones of voice. Balancing it with caring criticism. Letting your sincerity show–and not praising when you aren’t sincere–are all important tools as well.
I’m sure lots of teachers have other ideas about making positive reinforcement work. I hope you’ll share them. And I hope you’ll read Bronson’s article. Again, it’s one of the most powerful things I’ve read on working with young people as a teacher or a coach or even–as Bronson discusses–as a parent.