To praise or not to praise: is that the question?

Two years ago a casual conversation with a colleague about my experience of what I call the ‘deficit model of praise’, that is “what is the point of telling someone they have done well? If they are not told that they are wrong then it is obvious that they have done OK” provoked an unexpectedly aghast response, which made me stop to consider whether my experience had been unusual. Now, two years later, I realise that praise, or at least meaningful praise, is commonly absent from learners’ education – at least in their eyes – and I have started to research whether ITE programmes equip teachers with the ‘tools’ to give praise?

But is that the correct, or only, question that needs to be asked?

Perform a quick Internet search for “teachers giving praise” and amongst the top-ten results you will find cautionary thinking that over-praising lower-achievers can be counter-productive (What Makes Great Teaching, Sutton Trust, 2014). There’s also advice to think of the reason for giving praise before doing so (Student Praise in the Modern Classroom: The Use of Praise Notes as a Productive Motivational Tool, Matthew R. Hodgman, 2015). These two concepts made me think that asking whether teachers give praise is the wrong question and that I should be asking whether ITE equips teachers to be able to give [appropriate and meaningful] praise. It’s also important to recognise that learners do not always receive the message their teachers send. In a recent survey of around fifty mentors, over 90% reported having met learners who claimed that they had never been given any praise by any teacher. Exploring this a little further revealed that the majority of those learners reported regularly receiving feedback conforming to the pattern of “good work. In order to do better you must ……” and I speculate that most teachers giving such feedback would state that they had given praise (“good work…”) but the message received by the learners was that they had failed to reach the required standard (“In order to do better …”). This links to a text I heartily endorse: From Exam Factories to Communities of Discovery: The Democratic Route (Coffield & Williamson, 2012), in which the point is made that, for at least the last 30 years, teachers have only ever been “put down”, criticised and chastised, with no recognition of success or of doing a good job, by Government, OfSTED, managers and parents, so it is little wonder if teachers treat learners in a similar way, giving little or no praise and overshadowing any there is with “must try harder” feed-forward. This relates to Bourdieu’s concepts of Habitus and Doxa. The trouble is, when an individual does not receive recognition for what they do, it is likely that they will gradually reduce their expectations – how often have we heard learners say, “what’s the point, you’ll only tell me it’s wrong” or “I don’t want to answer in case I am wrong”? This diminishing expectation is described in one of Sir Ken Robinson’s wonderful talks (Changing educational paradigms, 2010), when he notes that repeated testing appears to reduce learners’ ability to be innovative as they learn that they are expected to produce only one outcome which is seen as “correct”. To what extent, I wonder, is this due not to the repeated testing per se, but the fact that answers other than the prescribed “correct” ones are ignored or penalised, rather than explored and given credit?

So it seems to me that we, as educators, need to answer several questions before we can tackle the one I posed about ITE. Firstly we need to decide what we will praise: if praise is only to be given for the “correct” answer, then the “good, but to do better you must …” format may be fit for purpose, though we need to ensure that the learners understand that this is praise. However I would argue that we must give praise for creativity, novelty, ingenuity, risk-taking and progress and that, whilst we must always give appropriate feed-forward, we need to ensure that teachers are able to give fulsome praise which does not become swamped or negated by feed-forward. The responses of the fifty-odd mentors suggest this isn’t currently happening enough. We need to ensure that teachers are equipped to make all praise meaningful and valuable to their learners, otherwise the praise becomes insincere and even insulting in the learners’ eyes and has the demotivating effect that The Sutton Trust warns of. Above all else we must not allow the perpetuation of the deficit model, but rather should pay attention to the likes of Ted Thompson’s 1997 article “Do we need to train teachers how to administer praise? self-worth theory says we do” in order to encourage all our learners to stretch their potential.

Dave Darwent is an Associate Lecturer in Post 16 and Further Education in the Department of Teacher Education.