Monday, February 13, 2012

The pitfalls of praise

Today I read Chapter 6 of Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn.  So far this was the most challenging chapter for me to read because while I have come to dislike giving awards and rewards as a teacher, I've always believed it is important to praise students to encourage them.  Even though I realize that describing what the student has done, the task and the process, is more effective as a feedback method than simply praising the student for doing it, I found it hard to accept that praise can stifle motivation.

Alfie Kohn refers to praise as "verbal rewards" and describes studies that show that students that receive praise sometimes feel controlled or dependent on someone else's approval - praise is therefore an extrinsic motivator.  The whole problem with praise, as Kohn sees it, is that the purpose of praise can be to benefit the giver rather than the recipient.  Praising people makes them more likely to do what we want, which gives us a sense of power.  The people who we praise may come to like us better as a result of the praise, which also works to our advantage.

Kohn explores the motives for praising such as trying to enhance a student's performance or learning, promoting positive values and appropriate behavior and helping the student feel good about himself or herself.  However he writes that praise is unlikely to achieve any of these objectives and can even be counterproductive.  It's strange for me to imagine that praising a student could negatively affect their achievement, but Kohn gives 4 reasons why this can happen:

  • If a student is praised for succeeding at easy tasks, this can lead him to feel he isn't very smart.  In the same way if a student is praised for the effort he or she is putting in, it could lead him to think he has to try hard because he isn't very good at what he is doing.  If a student is praised for his or her ability this can indicate that success is outside of his control, and so discourage him from working to improve.
  • At other times praise can increase the pressure a student feels to live up to the praise - leading to self-consciousness and a poorer performance.
  • Sometimes praise can set up expectations of continued success, leading to students avoiding difficult tasks so that they don't risk the possibility of failure.
  • Praise can undermine intrinsic motivation.
As well as praise being detrimental to performance, Kohn writes that it can also be detrimental to behavior.  Often children are praised for being caring or being helpful and this may improve behavior in the short-term.  However it probably won't lead to a permanent improvement, especially when nobody is around to observe (and praise) it.

I started to reflect on how we, as adults, respond to praise.  Kohn writes "the most notable aspect of positive judgment is not that it is positive but that it is a judgement".  Adults may find such praise condescending, and in any case it reinforces the greater power of the person giving the praise.  If the direction of praise is reversed (so a low-status person praises a high-status person), this is often seen as presumptuous or even insulting.  As I read this I could certainly bring to mind the comments of colleagues  who feel uneasy with their annual evaluations, even when these are positive.  For example I remember one teacher telling me how insulted she felt after feedback on a classroom observation when she was told she'd taught a good lesson, while she herself felt it was just mediocre.  I think she felt that as a professional with many successful years of teaching in good schools, she was able to evaluate for herself how well she was doing.  An interesting thing I read in this chapter was that praise is more likely to have undesirable consequences for females than for males, and that women are more likely than men to view positive feedback as controlling, rather than as providing them with information.

Phony praise is the worst of all - we can all tell when someone is being insincere and just trying to boost morale.  Phony praise is not spontaneous, but a deliberate strategy to reach some end.  Kohn describes the way we hear this as a "squeaky, saccharine voice that slides up and down the scale" and points out that a pause before praising suggests the praiser has decided to hand out a verbal reward and is now trying to find someone to whom this can be presented.  

Kohn writes about how important it is that we feel a sense of self-determination and control over our lives and our performances.  We need to know that we can make our own judgements, we don't simply have to conform to someone's else's criteria.  We need to know that we are working because it is something we want to do, not just working to win someone else's approval.  As teachers we are more likely to respond to useful feedback than to praise, therefore it should follow that our students will be more likely to respond to feedback too.  Kohn has therefore drawn up a set of suggestions for how to give good feedback:
  • Don't praise people, praise what they do
  • Make the praise as specific as possible
  • Avoid phony praise
  • Avoid praise that sets up a competition (comparing to someone else, encouraging the view of others as rivals)
If praise is given, should it be done in private or in public?  I'm going to think about this for my next blog post.

Photo Credit:  Welcomehands by Don and Tonya Christner Attribution

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