Praise is the best! But criticism can be great, too

29th April 2011 at 01:00
Catherine explains why praise sometimes needs a dimmer switch

"Brilliant!" Really? Are you sure?

Praise is a powerful drug. It makes everyone feel great - those who give it as well as those who take it. But do we ever think about its long-term effects?

Of course praise is important. It motivates, boosts confidence and therefore builds independence. Praise creates good relationships between teachers and pupils. It's free, it's easy and it works. Yet when did praise become so extreme?

"Fantastic! Right, class, excellent, facing this way, that's great .".

There is nothing wrong with being positive, but if you constantly use superlatives, there is nowhere to go when something truly is brilliant. You have made everyone feel great but you have devalued your own currency. What is wrong with encouragement, constructive criticism and praise where it's due? Disproportionate praise can sound slightly demented.

This term, as we prepare our pupils for their exams, it is tempting to be lavish with praise. "Praise five times for every criticism!" is one daft example of this. A lot of kids can count to five. So they see our game and rightly lose respect for us. Instead of having to work for our approval, it is almost as if we are working for theirs. This is nuts, but nobody challenges it because it's all about being positive, right?

Yet just imagine what all this is like for our pupils. They take their exams pumped up with praise, then bounce around in praise-filled air on results day. Then they enter a world of few jobs, less praise and "Can I have a word? This report needs re-doing". Praise is a powerful drug; overpraise is a dangerous one. We should measure our doses with care.

"There is no such whetstone, to sharpen a good wit and encourage a will to learning, as is praise." So wrote Roger Ascham in The Schoolmaster, published in 1570. His words imply a keen edge to praise and intelligence in its use. Praise can be cunning. You can burden a naughty child with your good opinion; trap a lazy one in your high expectations. "You're perfectly capable of this" contains praise, but it also carries a push towards future goals.

Jesus, one of the greatest teachers in history, very rarely used praise. In fact, he often sounds exasperated. "O ye of little faith . Do ye not yet understand, neither remember?" Jesus "taught them as one having authority". He would somehow have had less if he had kept saying "O well done!" to his disciples.

Are we supposed to be as sparing as Jesus in our praise, then? No - just calibrate it more carefully. And, crucially, check now and then that pupils understand what they are being praised for.

Praise needs a dimmer switch. There is nothing wrong with a simple "Yup, that's it" or a frank "No, but close". Then when you do say, "Ah, now that's good," it will mean a lot, because the recipients of your praise will know that it is true.

Catherine Paver is a writer and part-time English teacher.

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