16 January 2012

Goodbye to endless "self-esteem boosting"

From the Washington Post:
For decades, the prevailing wisdom in education was that high self-esteem would lead to high achievement. The theory led to an avalanche of daily affirmations, awards ceremonies and attendance certificates — but few, if any, academic gains.

Now, an increasing number of teachers are weaning themselves from what some call empty praise. Drawing on psychology and brain research, these educators aim to articulate a more precise, and scientific, vocabulary for praise that will push children to work through mistakes and take on more challenging assignments...

A growing body of research over three decades shows that easy, unearned praise does not help students but instead interferes with significant learning opportunities. As schools ratchet up academic standards for all students, new buzzwords are “persistence,” “risk-taking” and “resilience” — each implying more sweat and strain than fuzzy, warm feelings...
More at the Washington Post.  Thank God for this change.  The most egregious example I encountered in recent years was not in a school, but at the bowling alley.  In a lane adjacent to mine, I watched as a mommy praised every single one of her little precious' gutter balls.  Not a trace if real instruction on how to swing the ball or release it - just oohs and aahs and the clapping of hands after every single fruitless effort, accompanied by words expressing wonderment at the child's extraordinary (lack of) ability.


  1. My view is that this depends on the student, and that the judgement on the balance of praise against criticism is for the teacher, using their experience.
    I know children who would shrink into nothingness at the first suggestion of an adverse comment. I also know some who would prefer an honest "That was rubbish for the following reasons [ ]. Do it again.", and all shades between.

    However much you might like people to be able to take firm criticism, some will have their learning spoiled by it. Likewise, some will learn all the better for it.

  2. I would be glad to see the back of this trend for meaningless praise. Surely genuine encouragement and constructive criticism are more useful?
    I suspect that many children have an bility to see through empty praise, and that the lack of firm guidance simply encourages them to do the bare minimum that they can get away with, rather than trying to improve their performance.
    I for one would welcome an education system that encouraged children to analyse, and to think for themselves, rather than to just memorise sufficient information to pass the next test, which seems to be the tendency here in England.

  3. Dr. Ray Corsini developed a method of "democratic parenting" based on Adlerian theory. One of his ideas is that the power to praise comes with the power to diminish. Encouragement is far more respectful and useful. Most people can feel the difference as it is applied to themselves, and prefer encouragement by far. In my experience with my own and other people's children, as well as with adults, respect and encouragement are key to good relations.

  4. Good article. Sensible stuff. Over the years it has become very clear that we are better at building an attitude of entitlement rather than accountability.

  5. I teach microbiology at a university. My colleagues and I will be glad to see the end of students who expect an A for showing up and doing every assignment, no matter how poorly. Now if we could only get rid of the 'memorize and dump' method of teaching encouraged by NCLB.

  6. Skipweasel has it pretty much right- depends on the student. I remember years back when they still let people who couldn't sing a lick on American Idol (and it was almost fun to watch). One girl became absolutely enraged when rejected- "Nobody, nobody has ever told me that I can't sing!!!" On and on she went, becoming more and more enraged every time she said it.

    Yes, it was obvious no one ever had- everyone instead told her how wonderful she was- either out of their own ignorance, or more likely, their feel good attempt to boost her self esteem. Good job!

    I think we set up a whole lot of children for brutal disappointment and major disillusionment when someone finally does utter the truth about their actual abilities after all the judgement free accolades.

    On the other hand, you do have some kids who have been berated, abused and humiliated all their lives and have never, ever received an encouraging word or the very slightest praise for any accomplishment. It's a delicate balance sometimes that both teacher and pupil must walk.

  7. Meh. Prepare them for life. I do not hire these entitled kids because it is not my job to raise adults.
    Anything that gets rid of this celebration of mediocrity has my vote. Oh? You speak TWO languages? Wow, no, we do not pay extra for that, sorry...
    ...not to mention those 'MY kid is an honor student and all I got was this miserable bumper sticker' adverts'.

  8. Sometimes young kids need a self-esteem boost, like in the social world, when they are being teased by other kids, or when they've just made a social mistake ...as long as they learn from it. But in class, yeah, it's what you put into it that determines what you get out of it.

  9. The human development courses (and real life) have taught me that a balance of challenge and support help someone grow as a person. Praise can be a powerful motivator if it is sincere, but feedback on how to improve is important. Kids need to learn that they won't shrivel away like wilting flowers if someone gives them constructive criticism provided appropriately. I work at a university and am saddened when I encounter parents who try to shelter their college-aged students from experiencing anything remotely uncomfortable. And I am equally saddened when I come across students who have never been given constructive criticism and think they should own the world.

  10. I had a student with the highest self-esteem I have ever seen. He really believed that he was an excellent student, a talented athlete, a great dancer, wildly attractive to women, etc. He looked like the Urkel character, was noticeably uncoordinated, and couldn't even remember to dot the "i" or cross the "t" in his name. The other kids laughed at him, andhe took for support.

  11. "For decades, the prevailing wisdom in education was that high self-esteem would lead to high achievement. The theory led to an avalanche of daily affirmations, awards ceremonies and attendance certificates — but few, if any, academic gains."

    I am not surprised at this outcome.

    Praise is a GREAT thing when deserved or earned!
    When it's not merited it does nothing but hinder and give a false self perception.
    Praising everything takes away motivation to do anything in school well because the kids know that no matter how much effort they put forth they are going to be praised.
    Praise should be given when earned, it should be the benefit the student gets for hard.


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