My problem with praise

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One of the most fulfilling yet challenging aspects of our profession is the way small daily events throw into question our deeply held beliefs or ingrained practice. Indeed, almost by the hour, my ideas are challenged and strained by small, everyday episodes to the point where they require recalibration. One such situation occurred  at a parents’ evening last week.

I would describe myself as a phlegmatic character; I keep my emotional cards well and truly close to my chest. Many of the wonderful English teachers I have worked with over the past eight years are very different, more outward, and by watching and listening to them I have learnt to be more ostensibly warm and caring. To an extent.

In 2006, during my PGCE year, I read Investigating Formative Assessment by Torrance and Prior, which has greatly influenced my career ever since. One premise I distinctly remember was that teachers should be careful not to shower praise on students; by saying ‘well done’ or ‘good girl’ we stop thinking and progression in their tracks, giving students the false impression that what they have said is enough and no further thinking is necessary. For Mr Undemonstrative here, this fitted comfortably into my worldview. A strong reason not to praise too much so that I could stay in my comfort zone.

The argument about the detrimental effects of praise is backed by extensive educational research. See Hattie and Yates here:

“Two readily identified fallacies are that (a) people learn more when’s they receive praise, and (b) people need continual praise to establish and maintain feelings of self-worth. Despite thousands of projects neither statement has any serious support. Praise makes people happier, sometimes, and in some places. It can steer you toward wanting to do certain things or induce you to stay in the field. But it does not assist you to learn.”

Exposure to this kind of evidence has made me more and more confident in my classroom style: during discussions  I probe my students, constant asking them to say more, never satisfied with their initial answers, almost always avoiding the handing out of praise . Until last Thursday, I was quite cosy in my belief that my Y11 top-set students were gaining from this approach…until I came face-to-face with Alana’s parents (I have hidden her identity).

Now Alana is a great student: articulate, perceptive, kind and thoughtful. She is a dream to teach. Yet for some reason, despite the fact that her KS3 level was the highest in the class, she seems to have slipped behind many of her peers this year. At parents’ evening, her mother shed the cold light of day on the problem:

“She has lost confidence in English. She thinks that her answers in class are not good enough and that she is letting you down. Actually, she has come home quite upset on a couple of occasions recently.”

In spite of my knowledge of the research, an uncontrollable sense of guilt overcame me. I responded in two ways: (1) I talked quite honestly about how much I valued Alana’s perceptive contributions to class discussion, and (2) I gave a trite rationale for my discussion strategy – if we were, say, in discussion in a board meeting it would be quite strange to stop mid-flow to effusively praise another board-member.

This small and seemingly insignificant event has got me thinking. At first, it was easy to find solace in the research and blame her previous teachers: ha, she has been praised so fulsomely in the past for her native ability and become so used to immediate gratification that now that the going has got tough, she has no coping strategy to fall back on. And then I tried another tact: the empathy thing. How would I like to receive little or no praise for my blog contributions? What if people at my school and on Twitter had not praised these blog posts I’ve started to write? Would I still be writing them regularly four months in? Probably not.

You see, some of us desire praise, whether we care to admit it or not. Some students, for a complexity of reasons, are more reliant on it than others. Even Hattie and Yates concede that ‘a modicum of praise’ sets a ‘pleasant environment’ in the classroom. Today, I read an interesting blog post by Alex Quigley – here – about ‘cognitive bias’, about how our decision making is rooted in our emotions. Perhaps I have taken to the ‘anti-praise’ philosophy too ardently because it fits in comfortably with my rather stoical worldview, and the fact that being ‘very nice’ sometimes makes me feel awkward!

I have written before about responsiveness, about listening to the needs of individual students. With Alana, I am planning to find subtle ways to praise her – maybe an extra word or two in her book, maybe a copy of her written work used as an exemplar on the revision website I have set up. Other students may be made of sterner stuff, yet I cannot pretend that she is not struggling and that lack of regular praise does not play its part.

I will not abandon my beliefs about praise – the research and theory remains compelling. The current thinking is that we encourage ‘the growth mindset’ by praising effort; this makes sense yet it entails a huge cultural shift that will take time to embed. Be that as it may, I find myself, once again, scratching my head and refining and rebuilding my teaching philosophy. Whenever I feel I have grasped some meaning, it slips away from me again. The endless complexity of this job is ever fascinating.


Not everyone will agree with me, but yet again I have been reminded that we need to win over their hearts as well as their minds.