The damaging nature of empty praise

Posted on May 9, 2012 by


I use praise when teaching my students, younger and older. I don’t use it very often, as we’re usually just plodding through our work, but if I see that someone has done something excellent, I do praise them for their effort. In fact, in that instance the praise is often a group effort. Everyone can see them overcoming their struggle and we all get excited together. I even had a student melt into tears once, when everyone stood up to cheer for her.

That’s good praise. Natural praise. Simple, almost involuntary reactions to extraordinary accomplishment.

Compare that to what the Washington Post calls “empty praise”:

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…

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.

I try to consider that in my homeschool. I keep my son up-to-date on his lesson plan, and after every session, we discuss his progress. This really motivates him, as it’s an individual set of goals that he can work toward. If I see that something is easy for him, we stop doing it and move on to harder material. I then adjust his lesson plan accordingly and discuss the change with him. I don’t have to say, “Wow, you’re so great at that!” as eliminating it from the list proves his mastery in a more subtle manner.

Because we have year-round school at home, and our lesson plan is dynamic, I never mention things like “grade levels”. They’re irrelevant to his learning, and the knowledge that he’s ahead in math and behind in reading would merely discourage him on both accounts. We plan out the steps, note the daily progress, and check items off as we go along.

But if he does something that amazes me, I let myself get excited.

Posted in: Education