the Dragonfly journal

Not Everything is Fantastic: How NOT to Praise Students!

By Steve Chapman - @SteveChapmanDFT

As mentioned already in one of my earlier blogs on Subject Knowledge, one of the biggest obstacles to good teaching in my opinion is the continued use of ‘over praise’ in so many lessons. The words “brilliant“, “fantastic” and “excellent” are sometimes thrown around like confetti. To this list must be added a new word: “outstanding”. Only last week I heard the word “outstanding” used to describe the efforts of my son’s rugby team at least 14 times in one 20 minute game. This was despite them losing six tries to nil. This reminded me of one of his ‘pupil of the week’ assemblies from years ago when I heard the word “brilliant” used more than 10 times in five minutes.

As I delved into this matter more deeply it became clear that the younger generation of teachers had been told that unless you praise a pupil, they simply won’t be motivated, and this was taken as a fact. The older generation, (i.e. my age!) were used to era when teachers used to get away with bullying behaviour which no one approved of but had then been through the following era when ‘non-confrontational’ had been the latest buzz-word and were not sure exactly sure where they stood.

Before I go much further I think I need to make it very clear what exactly I mean.

The main contention for this article is:

“Over praise is not only ineffective, it can actually be highly counter-productive.”

Here are my Top 10 reasons why I think that over praise is one of the greatest blights of modern education.

1) Hyperinflation.
Praise must be earned otherwise it is valueless.

2) We are deceiving people.
If we tell pupils all things are fantastic when what is actually being given is in fact not very good then any improvement is devalued. In many cases, we are simply lying to the pupils. I saw too many heartbroken parents at year 10 or 11 parents’ evenings where they were being told their children were going to do poorly at GCSE after nine years of being told to the contrary.

I think most of us would agree; the art (please note not the science) of good teaching comes down to knowing where the pupils are at and showing them how to get better.

3) We are preventing a culture of positive feedback.
Pupils must learn to accept positive criticism and how to improve. Congratulation from a teacher after attempts to get something right is much more effective than endless “ah bless” type remarks. Pupils who have earned praise value it so much more.

4) We are stopping saying anything meaningful.
Returning to the issue of feedback, make praise as specific as possible.  If we tell a pupil: “You did this instead of this and that is why it is good,” that is effective feedback. That is what the evidence tells us. All research tells us that high quality effective feedback (which by definition must include the positive and the negative) is one the most important features of highly effective teaching. If we are ignoring one side of the equation the sum will never add up.

5) Can’t we speak well ourselves?
Good public speaking by teachers is our form of modelling desired outcomes. Many pupils only hear good public speaking from their teachers and certainly not at home. In these days we are constantly being reminded that literacy is not imperative and that teachers can manage to describe pupils’ work with a sufficient variety of adjectives.

6) Where next Columbus?
Over praise leaves nowhere to go. After something is “brilliant”, where do you go next? I’m becoming convinced that ‘pupil of the week’ at primary school is one of the biggest impediments to progress I’ve ever seen. After being told he was brilliant 12 times in five minutes, I’m sure the pupil in question felt no qualms in replicating his mediocrity for ever more amen.

7) It can actually demotivate.
In her pioneering work in AfL, Shirley Clarke pointed to clear evidence that too much praise can have a negative effect on motivation. She pointed out that just because Pupil A has had some praise, Pupils B and C will also be happy for them.

8) Dumbing down and grade deflation.
If we continue to praise what is not very good then by definition we will lower, not raise, standards. The accusation will no doubt be made that instead of criticising the students’ work I could just praise them and their work and then tell them how to improve it. My answer is “yes or no” depending on how much effort they have actually put into it. However, I can point out that their work is of a certain standard, then model a higher standard, then ask them to do more and then be pleased with the results.

9) Parents don’t always agree.
Many parents are saying that teachers take any old tosh in and mark it and that the pupils are often getting away with very little. I keep greeting parents who ask me why teachers don’t just ask the pupil to do it again.

10) It’s not going to be the same when they leave school.
So many employers are saying that so many school-leavers seem to expect praise all the time. As one employer said to me over a beer after footie one night: “They seem to expect me to tell them how well they are doing all the time. School-leavers don’t seem to realise that not only have I not got the time, but that that’s what I expect them to be doing all the time. Of course I will tell them they’ve done well when they have, but don’t expect it all the time ‘cos it ain’t gonna happen.”

At the end of this some people might think that I’m the biggest ‘Bah Humbug’ known to mankind. However I am very lucky in that my head teacher has kindly allowed me to have staff from other schools come in and see what I’m doing so I say come down to my class and see how I try to motivate the pupils.

The keys being:

A – Good subject knowledge and passion for my subject.

B – A detailed knowledge of them and their work and I can prove to them they are improving.

C – They try to please me in the same way I always tried to please teachers that I respected and I still try to please my dad.

D – I take them on a well-organised and challenging journey.

These fundamentals were ever thus, and always will be, in teaching.