How to make praise work

  • How to make praise work

When it comes to delivering praise, a classic means of getting it wrong is missing kids getting it right. Do this at your peril – the light bulb moments are the key points when you need to grab hold of the reins and lead the learning. A basic rule of teaching, whatever the age of your pupils, is to catch the students doing things well and praising them. So, if someone gives you a fantastic answer, or is focused for the whole lesson, or helps another student, then either praise them there and then or, alternatively, pull them to one side on the way out of the lesson. It will take you ten seconds to say, ‘Kian, I’d like to thank you for your brilliant behaviour today. It was a real help to me, and you’ve contributed to making this a fantastic lesson.’ The simple truth is that Kian will want more of where that came from.

What about the kids who offer answers but get it wrong? You need to deal with them carefully so they want to try again. A simple ‘no’ is clearly not the way forward. Find a way to thank them for their effort and move on to another, hopefully correct, answer. Then aim to bring the student who got it wrong back into the tent by asking, ‘Does that sound like a right answer to you?’ Circle completed. All on board.

We are not advocating false praise or that you go overboard, merely that you make a point of catching the kids doing things well and telling them. As a teacher, you lead the learning in the classroom and, just like great leaders in history, you need to seize the moment and deploy all of your skills to make it really count. We’ve heard trainers talk about teachers being ‘facilitators’ of learning. Not at all: teachers lead the learning and lead their kids.

It’s about the effort

On the subject of praise, we’d like to share some research by Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University. Dweck set out to explore the factors which influence the development of talent. She conducted research on 400 11-year-olds in which she set them a series of puzzles to solve. At the end of the first exercise she gave them their scores and six words of praise. Half were given praise which suggested that they were gifted and intelligent at solving puzzles, such as ‘You are smart at this.’ The other half were given praise reflecting the effort they had put in, such as ‘You must have worked really hard.’ She then gave them the choice of attempting a test of similar difficulty or a much harder test, and the results were startling. Those who were praised for their intelligence were markedly less willing to take on the tougher challenge, as if they were frightened of failing and therefore losing their ‘smart’ status. Those who were given effort based praise were much more up for the task.

She followed this up with a very tough test. None of the students did very well, but those who had been given praise based on their intelligence were completely demotivated, as though this proved they weren’t very good after all. In contrast, those who were given effort based praise really got their teeth into it. They achieved more and stayed at the task much longer. She then gave the children a test of equal difficulty to the first one. Those who were praised for their intelligence showed a noticeable drop in their results, whereas those who were praised for effort increased their score by thirty per cent. Dweck has repeated this research several times in different contexts but with identical results.

Blooming brilliant

Now here’s where we think it gets particularly interesting. Dweck also talks about what she calls ‘dandelion’ and ‘orchid’ children. Dandelions are hardy and perennial; they crop up everywhere. You don’t have to look after them or water them. Orchids, on the other hand, are much more difficult to cultivate. They require perfect soil conditions, temperature and feeding and, even then, they might bloom for only a day or two. In this gardening analogy lies the nub of the discipline issue. The chances are that the kids who are causing you the most grief are the orchids. Yes, they require more attention and quite specific conditions but, if you create the right climate, they will flourish.

You can improve the odds of creating the right climate by truly appreciating the power of your words. Dweck is emphatic in her conclusion that praising children’s intelligence harms their motivation and their overall performance, whereas praise that reflects their effort stimulates performance by creating a growth mindset. Teachers who want to engage with their students should use the kind of feedback listed below:

‘You’ve really worked hard, and that is why it has turned out so well.’

‘Great effort! You are much further along the road to…’

‘Top effort! Now you are in business!’ ‘That’s the best result you have achieved in this topic so far. Now, if we can work really hard at… you will be able to…’

‘At the beginning of the week, none of you were any good at this, because you hadn’t done it before. But now, with all the work you’ve put into it, look where you’ve got to! Brilliant!’

The Matthew effect

The ‘Matthew effect’ is a rule of life. It describes a situation in which an initial success leads to even greater success; conversely, if we’re unsuccessful, we’re likely to become even more unsuccessful.The effect derives its name from a passage in the Gospel of Matthew: ‘For to everyone who has will be given, and he will have more: but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away’ (25:29).

Heavy stuff, but probably true. Let us give you a school example: children who start off reading well will get better and better compared to their peers, because they will read even more broadly and quickly. In contrast, it’s very hard for poor readers to catch up because, for them, the spiral goes downwards. Hence, the gap between those who read well and those who read poorly grows bigger rather than smaller. Success snowballs, but so does failure; so it’s vital to get our spiral going in the right direction, preferably at an early age.

Poor behaviour is also a Matthew effect phenomenon; to avoid it playing out in your classroom, set students up for some early successes. Boost their confidence in your subject. If they ‘get it’ early on, the spiral of learning – and engagement – looks after itself. Brilliant teachers plan for this on a lesson by lesson basis: start with an activity which the kids can succeed at, follow it with another where success is probable and then lead them on through a carousel of activities where success becomes ingrained.

About the author

This extract is taken from the Art of Being a Brilliant teacher (crown House, £9.99) © gary toward, chris Henley and Andy cope 2012, 2015