I like my well dones rare

21st November 2014 at 00:00

On one of my first training days, I observed a supply teacher in a school where students dealt skunk at the back of the class. Pandemonium reigned for 45 minutes, as even the nicer pupils told him to go blow himself and the normally naughty drew knobs on the walls in stolen marker pen. I asked if he wanted me to fetch an all-units back-up to his coordinates, but he waved away my offers of help as if he was on a ride at Disney. The bell went and he stood by the door and smiled as the children fled. "Brilliant!" he said to everyone. "Great lesson! Well done!" I think they call that cognitive dissonance.

Now I'm older and slightly sandblasted, I can see that he was probably just doing whatever it took to get through the day - maybe selling himself a little fairy tale to tell the mirror when he went home. But it made me think a lot about praise.

Recently the Sutton Trust published a report that echoed some of my conclusions. Its author, Rob Coe, points out that although praise can be transformative, it can also harrow. I think good teachers have always been aware of this, but it doesn't hurt to have it pointed out explicitly. The lost boys and girls of my example above didn't secretly hug themselves with pleasure to hear themselves congratulated; they saw it as something plastic, like a child's toy that says "You're great!" when you pull the string. I don't doubt it made them view the teacher the same way.

It's something of a modern dogma that teachers should be relentlessly positive to their students, as if anything short of a medal and a podium place will break the little ones' tender hearts. I wouldn't want a return to the days when teacher reports could suggest, without fear of dismissal, that pupils were idiots, but even clay needs a firm hand for an impression to be made.

Praise should not, must not, be overused, otherwise it becomes a tender trap that softens the soul it seeks to salute. Who's the only judge on The X Factor whose opinion anyone cares about? It isn't soggy Louis Walsh; it's the adamantine Simon Cowell. Like any currency, praise loses its value when it is abundant.

"Brilliant!" we say to the student who brings a pen. But what do you say when the same student brings a pen the next day? Or writes a good essay? What happens when the best pupil in the class writes a truly brilliant essay?

Words, like weapons, should be chosen with care. Praise should be constructed as carefully as criticism. We wouldn't dream of routinely responding to every mistake with "dreadful, terrible, disgusting", so why dish out props like a ticker-tape parade? I have three principles when it comes to praise: it needs to be sincere, proportionate and earned. If you ration your thumbs-up to the times that you feel your fists really need to make them, they'll acquire the market value of rubies. Which isn't to say that praise shouldn't be as routine a feature of your room as clouds in the sky, but it doesn't always have to be pouring. Let the lightning flash rarely and people will gaze in awe.

Tom Bennett teaches at the Jo Richardson Community School in Essex and is director of the ResearchED conference

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