Praisealitus by Jamie Thom

As an NQT I suffered from a tragic and deadly case of praisealitus. At every possible moment I would exclaim loudly and gleefully: “fantastic”, “outstanding”, “brilliant”, “superb”, “wonderful”. They were tossed around like confetti, sprouted in response to even the most incoherent of grunted answers. My students’ workbooks would be scrawled with more hyperbole: “I absolutely love this” was a particular favourite. Then one day, my arch nemesis Danielle decided to inform me about the reality of my condition. Rolling her eyes with impeccable talent (again) she looked at me scathingly: “Is anything not excellent?”

While I admit that Danielle intimidated/terrified me on a number of levels, she really had me there. How do you counter that? Other than letting the ground metaphorically open me up, I decided there and then that I would no longer be so thoughtless with my praise. No: I would now become a sophisticated, nuanced user of praise. How to reach those lofty heights was another question.

Fast forward five years and I am intrigued to see how far, or if, I have developed on this mission. Before I do, a point of clarity: I am very aware of the value of praise in the classroom and I am by no means rejecting it. It is vital in both building successful relationships and motivating students, crucial in creating a positive and optimist classroom culture. We all love being praised, we all love being recognised for things we have  done well. It is a huge part of nurturing our self-esteem and confidence. We all, however, can spot disingenuous and flippant praise a mile off – and we know how it makes us feel about our efforts. Young people are no different; my conversations with students this week have, somewhat disconcertingly, reiterated to me their capacity to see through any lack of sincerity in the classroom.

Now to the ‘Praiseometer. I asked a student in each of my classes to complete the ‘Praiseometer’ for an identified twenty minute period in the lesson. They had to listen

 carefully to dialogue I was having with students and the whole class and write down the forms of praise they noticed; the final result was a tally of each form of praise employed.

Looking carefully at the results of this (I am aware this is not the most sophisticated of evidenced based endeavours!) it was clear was that I continue to fall into the trap of unspecified praise. In one twenty minute section I used “good” fifteen times. Fifteen times! Also being more self-conscious about my own use of praise this week than usual, I recognised my desire to reassert the positive, to be relentlessly optimistic and to seek to find the things to praise in the classroom.  That youthful desire to please and fear of crushing students motivation is still very much a part of my lessons.

There are worse things to be doing, but my reflections this week have left me with six key priorities. They are also taken from brief conversations with each class about what they valued in terms of praise (I did do some teaching this week, not just talk/think about praise!) It represents a final and conclusive list that can drive my praise mission:

Honest praise: Over-inflation is dangerous and detrimental in any context. If I tell the students they are “outstanding” when really they have given me something mediocre I am only serving to confuse them about my expectations.  My praise needs to be seriously tempered and a focus on the reality of what is being offered to me. I need to communicate high expectations about what “outstanding” looks like in my classroom – and make this something that students are relentlessly striving to attain. The ubiquity of “good” in my classroom is something for me to reflect on. It will only serve to confuse my pupils: how do they know when I think something is really effective? What is my criteria for “good work” and are they really matching this?  The cognitive scientist Daniel T Willingham surmises: “To motivate students—especially older students who are more discerning and better able to appreciate the differences between what is said and what is meant—teachers need to avoid praise that is not truthful, is designed to control behaviour, or has not been earned.

Specific praise: We know that high quality feedback is vital to learning and clarity in the classroom. Any praise that is offered has to be specific: “that is good because… that is strong as you have used… you have responded to that well because…”.  Training students to do this to their own and each others’ work is also useful and vital in moving peer and self assessment from perfunctory to effective.  As an English teacher I also feel responsible for developing students’ literacy: offering detailed and precise verbal responses is something I am coaching young people to do, so I should also be modelling this in my own praise and feedback. This is also clear in marking: writing “good” in the margin is utterly pointless. They need to recognise why something is good – even if they go back themselves afterwards and write down what they did effectively.  Linking the praise to the objective of the lesson (one of Doug Lemov’s ‘Teach like a Champion techniques) is also very useful for clarity: it helps in ensuring there is a consistency and a drive to the lesson and so that students know exactly what you want them to achieve. Daniel Goleman’s masterful ‘Emotional Intelligence’ clarifies: “specificity is just as important for praise as for criticism. I won’t say that vague praise has no effect at all, but it doesn’t have much, and you can’t learn from it.

Behavioural praise: Praise for behaviour is hugely illuminating and useful in the classroom. It also prevents the diatribe of negativity that can dominate in more challenging groups. It models to students expectations and celebrates a positive classroom culture. Spotting what is going right, rather than going wrong and specifically praising it models the behaviours that I might want my harder to reach students to demonstrate.  This needs to be based on high expectations – I am not advocating praising students for merely taking a pen out. It is about setting the bar very high then recognising when students are striving to achieve it. This excellent post by Tom Sherrington captures this approach.

Effort praise: Praise needs to be earned and to be richly deserved. More importantly it should be about process and effort rather than what might be perceived as ability. My naive NQT self was actually demotivating students quite drastically – making them at the very most ambivalent about striving to achieve their very best but certainly unclear about what they could potentially achieve. Carol Dweck’s TED talk on praise and mindset will, of course, explain this far better than I could attempt.

Differentiated praise: Sensitivity and empathy is again core when considering how to praise students meaningfully. In my own classes I know the students who would curl up into a ball of embarrassment if I publicly acknowledge and praise them. They are my students who need quiet and focused moments of sincere praise. Despite being so fixated on praise this week, I got this horribly wrong on Tuesday when I showed the wonderful Amy in Year 11’s homework, four pages of research on ‘Inspector Calls’, to the class. She was mortified! Conversely, I also know I need to feed some of my other students’ desire for public recognition – using moments to recognise their efforts in front of their peers is what they need. Ryan – in the same class – was beaming when I later in the week showered him with praise for his knowledge of ‘Moonshine’ (he knew it was homemade and illicit alcohol, I had no idea!)

Unexpected praise: Predictability is the curse of any classroom. Students in my classroom are probably keeping their own tally of how many times I say “good” in the lesson. Praise will now be much more spontaneous and earned, not predictably at the end of all responses offered. I want students to be working hard to gain some positive recognition, not expect it.

Praisealitus is a condition that needs careful monitoring. Praise needs to be a part of our genetic makeup as teachers; I am certainly not hunting for a vaccination (last one, promise). Rather, we are looking to regulate and reflect on its impact; allow it to seep in only of moments of true merit and not for triviality. It serves its function in many different levels, most profoundly when it enables and encourages effort in its different forms.

Thanks for reading; some useful points of reference:

Doug Lemov ‘Teach like a Champion 2.0’

Daniel Goleman: ‘Emotional Intelligence’

Carol S DweckMindset

How Praise Can Motivate—or Stifle by Daniel T. Willingham (see link) 

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