In schools, self-esteem boosting is losing favor to rigor, finer-tuned praise

Finally, “educators” are discovering what ordinary parents have known all along – self esteem follows success!

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From The Washington Post, By Michael Alison Chandler, Published: January 15, 2012 –



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. Consider teacher Shar Hellie’s new approach in Montgomery County.

To get students through the shaky first steps of Spanish grammar, Hellie spent many years trying to boost their confidence. If someone couldn’t answer a question easily, she would coach him, whisper the first few words, then follow up with a booming “¡Muy bien!”

But on a January morning at Rocky Hill Middle School in Clarksburg, the smiling grandmother gave nothing away. One seventh-grade boy returned to the overhead projector three times to rewrite a sentence, hesitating each time, while his classmates squirmed in silence.

“You like that?” Hellie asked when he settled on an answer. He nodded. Finally, she beamed and praised the progress he was making — in his cerebral cortex.

“You have a whole different set of neurons popping up there!” she told him.

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.

“We used to think we could hand children self-esteem on a platter,” Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck said. “That has backfired.”

Dweck’s studies, embraced in Montgomery schools and elsewhere, have found that praising children for intelligence — “You’re so clever!” — also backfires. In study after study, children rewarded for being smart become more likely to shy away from hard assignments that might tarnish their star reputations.

But children praised for trying hard or taking risks tend to enjoy challenges and find greater success. Children also perform better in the long term when they believe that their intellect is not a birthright but something that grows and develops as they learn new things.

Brain imaging shows how this is true, how connections between nerve cells in the cortex multiply and grow stronger as people learn and practice new skills. This bit of science has proved to be motivating to struggling students because it gives them a sense of control over their success.

It’s also helpful for students on an accelerated track, the ones often told how “smart” they are, who are vulnerable to coasting or easily frustrated when they don’t succeed.

That’s how teachers at Rocky Hill Middle started talking about “neuroplasticity” and “dendritic branching” during training sessions. They also started the school year by giving all 1,100 students a mini-course in brain development.

“This is the most important thing you are going to learn this year,” Hellie said she told her students before playing a YouTube video that explains how brains grow. “It has to do with the way you are going to live the rest of your life — whether you will continue to learn, be curious, have an active, growing brain or whether you are going to sit and let things happen to you.”

An online curriculum called Brainology developed by Dweck and another researcher in 2009 has been used in 300 schools. Joshua P. Starr, the new Montgomery schools superintendent, selected Dweck’s book, “Mindset,” for the inaugural session of a book club he created to introduce his education philosophy.

Dweck’s work builds on other research about motivation and the malleability of intelligence that has stirred significant changes in curriculum, teacher training and gifted instruction in many school districts.

In Fairfax County, for example, students are no longer labeled “gifted” but considered on a spectrum of “novice” to “expert” in each subject — the kind of language that is seeping into teacher praise, said Carol Horn, coordinator of advanced academic programs for Fairfax schools.

Education experts have long warned about the dark side of praise.

Alfie Kohn, author of the book “Punished by Rewards,” has said most praise, even for effort, encourages children to be “praise junkies” dependent on outside feedback rather than cultivating their own judgment and motivation to learn.

Michelle A. Rhee, the former D.C. schools chancellor, often recounts a story about how her daughters’ many soccer trophies are warping their sense of their athletic abilities. Her daughters “suck at soccer,” she said in a radio interview for Marketplace last January.

“We’ve become so obsessed with making kids feel good about themselves that we’ve lost sight of building the skills they need to actually be good at things,” Rhee said.

Underlying the praise backlash is a hard seed of anxiety — a sense that American students are not working hard enough to compete with students from overseas for future jobs.

In an oft-cited 2006 study by the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, U.S. eighth-graders had only a middling performance on an international math exam, but they registered high levels of confidence. They were more likely than higher performing students from other countries, such as Singapore and South Korea, to report that they “usually do well in mathematics.”

Praise should be relevant to objective standards, said Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank. Whether it’s given to make children feel good or because “at least they tried,” it’s not helpful if students are still “50 yards from proficient,” he said.

“Winning or losing also matters in the real world,” Finn said. “You either beat the enemy or you don’t. You either get the gold medal or you get the silver.”

Dweck said it is important to be clear with children about what proficient or gold-medal performance looks like so they know what to strive for. (Unhelpful: “You were robbed! Those judges must be blind!”)

But she stresses the importance of using praise to encourage risk-taking and learning from failure in the classroom, experiences that make way for invention, creativity and resilience.

“Does the teacher say: ‘Who’s having a fantastic struggle? Show me your struggle.’ That is something that should be rewarded,” she said. “Does the teacher make it clear that the fastest answer isn’t always the best answer? [That] a mistake-free paper isn’t always the best paper?”

Changing the language of praise can be difficult for adults who grew up thinking that an “A for effort” was a consolation prize.

During his book club, Starr recounted how his 3-year-old son recently discovered that the word “brown” starts with B.

“My wife says, ‘You are so smart,’ ” he recalled. When he discouraged her from praising his intelligence, Starr said, “she looked at me like I was crazy.”

Typically, young children don’t second-guess praise. But teenagers understand when feedback is useful and authentic. “Great job!” doesn’t tell them what was great about what they did, experts say.

“They know that everything they do isn’t ‘Magnificent!’ ” Hellie said.

And so her class is becoming accustomed to awkward silence.

The same January morning, another seventh-grade boy struggled to figure out what was wrong with this sentence: Un chico soy inteligente.

One classmate started to answer, but Hellie stopped her. Another classmate volunteered, in newly acquired vocabulary, why the boy needed to persist on his own. “He’s trying to connect pathways in his brain or whatever,” she said.

Finally, the boy understood.

“Soy un chico inteligente,” he said.

“What does it mean?” the teacher asked.

“I am an intelligent boy?”

The class broke into applause.

7 responses

  1. Why does it seem to take the so-called experts so long to recognize “common sense”, if ever?

  2. Jack C. Pickard

    Why do educators and researchers limit themselves to a single stroke of the brush. I will opt in with your research as long as you recognize that input on effort and end results are both equally important. One connects the synapsis, the other connects the self-esteem of the individual. Agreed, not always does the effort need the stroking, but good teachers will never miss when extraordinary effort that resulted in less that perfect end product, does require proper input or they may loose that student forever.

  3. A ribbon for every child! The school system has provided fodder for the entitlement attitude for many years now. the parents have insisted on this and are not taking responsibility for the training of and developing a sense of responsibility in their own children, thus setting them up for truly disappointing futures. The kids are truly under a lot of pressure from their parents to perform, but they really learn quickly that if they don’t perform they will be rewarded anyway. Daddy was good at sports, not evey kid will have that apptitude, Mom was good at academics not all will have that apptitude. The most important thing that can be taught is the basic right and wrongs an be proud of every effort that the kids make, but rewarding subpar behavior or accomplishment does not help. What helps is doing the best they can and understanding that they can be better than most on effort, Do you think that these little guys don’t know they didn’t win or perform the best, do you think the true winners did the best they could do when it really didn.t matter, the results were the same. How many losers were really winners and just didn’t have the support and cultivated desire to be the best.

    rambled enough!

  4. Jack C. Pickard

    Hi Stan I hope rambling is okay, came accross this little gem yesterday on facebook and it is a direct result of our current education system. “Checking out at the grocery store recently, the young cashier suggested I should bring my own grocery bags because plastic bags weren’t good for the environment. I apologized and explained, “We didn’t have this green thing back in my earlier days.” The clerk responded, “That’s our problem today. Your generation did not care enough to save our environment for future generations.” She was right about one thing — our generation didn’t have the green thing in “Our” day. So what did we have back then…? After some reflection and soul-searching on “Our” day here’s what I remembered we did have…. Back then, we returned milk bottles, soda bottles and beer bottles to the store. The store sent them back to the plant to be washed and sterilized and refilled, so it could use the same bottles repeatedly. So they really were recycled. But we didn’t have the green thing back in our day. We walked up stairs, because we didn’t have an escalator in every store and office building. We walked to the grocery store and didn’t climb into a 300-horsepower machine every time we had to go two blocks. But she was right. We didn’t have the green thing in our day. Back then, we washed the baby’s diapers because we didn’t have the throw-away kind. We dried clothes on a line, not in an energy gobbling machine burning up 220 volts — wind and solar power really did dry our clothes back in our early days. Kids got hand-me-down clothes from their brothers or sisters, not always brand-new clothing. But that young lady is right. We didn’t have the green thing back in our day. Back then, we had one TV, or radio, in the house — not a TV in every room. And the TV had a small screen the size of a handkerchief (remember them?), not a screen the size of the state of Montana. In the kitchen, we blended and stirred by hand because we didn’t have electric machines to do everything for us. When we packaged a fragile item to send in the mail, we used wadded up old newspapers to cushion it, not Styrofoam or plastic bubble wrap. Back then, we didn’t fire up an engine and burn gasoline just to cut the lawn. We used a push mower that ran on human power. We exercised by working so we didn’t need to go to a health club to run on treadmills that operate on electricity. But she’s right. We didn’t have the green thing back then. We drank from a fountain when we were thirsty instead of using a cup or a plastic bottle every time we had a drink of water. We refilled writing pens with ink instead of buying a new pen, and we replaced the razor blades in a razor instead of throwing away the whole razor just because the blade got dull. But we didn’t have the green thing back then. Back then, people took the streetcar or a bus, and kids rode their bikes to school or walked instead of turning their moms into a 24-hour taxi service. We had one electrical outlet in a room, not an entire bank of sockets to power a dozen appliances. And we didn’t need a computerized gadget to receive a signal beamed from satellites 2,000 miles out in space in order to find the nearest pizza joint. But isn’t it sad the current generation laments how wasteful we old folks were just because we didn’t have the green thing back then? Please post this on your Facebook profile so another selfish old person who needs a lesson in conservation from a smart-ass young person can add to this.”
    I copied this off a post in Facebook saw no references so assume it isn’t copy written material. Was just thinking about the house I live in that was built in 1870’s yep it is still the central core of my house and it is built pier and beam … built on God’s on solid foundation: rock. It survived a couple of tornadoes passing in near vicinity and is still a good central core to my house today. Now when doing some of the remodeling we noted the age of the house from the insulation in the walls that was commonly used back in the day; Newspaper. The wood used in the house was cypress wood and a 1” board was really a 1 inch board. We live in North Central Texas so can only assume the builder was an old Civil war soldier that found out that this type of wood was used in the deep south to build with because termites and other insects will not eat it. It is also great against water penetration. So to stretch the thesis of this presentation yeah, the old timers don’t know much about “Green” lifestyles. We had it handed down for generations, until we got to these last few generations that forgot to pass on anything sage or wise to their offspring. Oh, I guess television, computers, automobiles and such got in the way of family time so no one bothered to pass on this kind of information. That my friends is called poor parenting. Stop somewhere today and bore a kid they need it. Pass this on to the Ron Paul youth followers, they need another mouthpiece other than the one they have been listening to!

  5. At the college level, I was encouraged to award points and to make them LARGE. 500 points for this assignment, 200 points for that assignment, 100 points for another assignment. Administration told me it was a good form of encouragment…I told them the students were getting confused. I lost that battle. We teachers are trying…but you’d be suprised the push-back we get from administrators and parents alike? Luckily in college, were not “all winnners” and failing means…you fail.

  6. Well do you run into the entitled attitude. ???

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