Recent research in England using a sample of 130 secondary teachers showed that 90 per cent believed they were more positive than negative. When these teachers were observed over a number of weeks, it was discovered that when focusing on academic work they made three times as many positive remarks as negative ones. When focusing on classroom behaviour, however, they made three times as many negative remarks as positive ones. Positive remarks for academic work decreased the older the pupils became.
Let's not be too hard on teachers. Put-down remarks are a generally accepted form of communication in our society, often meant "jokingly" or used as a way of conveying affection. Recent research on observations of children at home and in school showed that in an average day they received 460 negative or critical comments and 75 positive or supportive comments.
There is plenty of advice around about how to use praise effectively. The criteria offered in a recent Office for Standards in Education publication on mathematics are fairly typical. Praise should be contingent, it must depend on some particular thing the pupil has done rather than on their general performance; it should be specific, identifying the specific behaviour being praised and the reason why; and it must be credible.
But is praise always a "good thing"? There is a widespread assumption among teachers that it is. Books on classroom discipline which focus on pupil behaviour and what teachers can do to change it tend to stress praise. But achievement is not a magic ingredient that can be artificially supplied by the teacher. Everyone knows when they have or have not achieved something meaningful.
Praise, then, is a complex issue. It is not easy to look at in isolation as it is bound up with many other issues such as self esteem, self-belief, fear of failure, learning styles, control, responsibility and culture. Like most things in teaching there are no easy answers. There are many who believe that praise can actually be harmful. They stress the importance of building positive relationships in teaching through encouragement and appreciation and of the need to help learners to develop their own views of themselves, of each other and of the world. Praise can be seen as a way of inducing people to conform, as being manipulative and underhanded, as a means of controlling people. Often what you can be saying is "You can have my approval only by doing what I decide is right for you."
Overuse of praise, it is argued, can limit the opportunity for others to develop their own decision-making ability and can reduce people's ability to self-evaluate. Self-confident people need less praise. They stop asking "What does he or she want?" and start thinking "What do I want?" They feel good about themselves and are better able to appreciate themselves without the dependency on the approval of others.
Some people want, indeed need, appreciation for who they are. You cannot tell them too often that you enjoy their company or you appreciate their work. Others prefer feedback about their competence. It is for these people that praise must be specific and credible. For them statements like you are super have little meaning unless you explain why.
So what do you do? First, use praise, but use it carefully. Most of the time judgments are made on the spur of the moment and without thinking, and are based on ways of working as a person and as a teacher and the mental models you have about people and about the world. It pays to be more aware of what these mental models are and how they affect the way you use praise.
Second, dare to show your appreciation a bit more. Praise ("You are doing a good job"; "You are a good student") is an evaluation, appreciation ("I appreciate the work you are doing"; "I like having you in my class") is not only an expression of feeling but is a fact rather than an evaluation. It demonstrates positive regard and it involves taking a risk, sharing something of yourself. Instead of conveying the message "You are good" it conveys the message "I like or respect you". Surely this is the kind of message we want secondary teachers to be able to convey a bit more?
Ian Smith is development fellow at the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum. A longer version of this article is available on the Internet at http:claudius.sccc.ac.uk.