Sunday, January 4, 2009

Rethinking Praise

I recently discovered that learning something new just might be the best way to improve my own teaching. A few days go I experienced a powerful lesson about praise. I was learning a new style of cross-country skiing, and it was quite a challenge for me. I'm very comfortable with the "striding" style of that sport, but I had never tried the more athletic "skating" style. It looked fun, so I decided to take a lesson. Wow! It's been years since I tried anything that physically challenging! I felt completely uncoordinated and off-balance the entire 90 minutes! The instructor was wonderful, but she had the nerve to do something that I do every single day in the classroom . . . she praised me when I was struggling! The problem was that hearing "good job" when I felt like a duck on skis was more insulting than encouraging. I knew that I wasn't doing a good job, and the praise did not ring true. What I would have liked to hear was, "Keep on working - it will get easier in time." Experiencing praise from the standpoint of the learner really opened my eyes and made me rethink the role of praise in learning.

This ah-ha moment may have been partly due to the fact that the role of praise was already on my mind. A few weeks ago I read "The Perils and Promises of Praise," an article by Carol Dweck that appeared in the October 2008 edition of Educational Leadership.This article examined two kinds of praise that teachers often give students and the long-term effects of praising in those ways. It seems that how we are praised may impact how we view our own intelligence. Some students believe that intelligence is a fixed trait - that people are just born with a certain amount of intelligence. Others believe that they can develop their intellectual abilities by working hard and learning more. As it turns out, praising students for being smart causes them to adopt the former attitude, with quite damaging consequences. Students who think their intelligence is fixed become easily frustrated when they face a challenge. Their self-confidence is tied up in "being smart," and they are afraid that if they ask questions, they won't seem smart. On the other hand, when students are praised for working hard and putting forth effort, they don't worry about appearing smart. Instead, they are willing to tackle challenges and try new experiences. This article is a must-read for any teacher or parent.

There's a happy ending to my cross-country ski story. I didn't give up, and after a few days of sticking with it, I was able to navigate my way around the green beginner trails of Tahoe Donner Ski Area. The weather was gorgeous and I had a wonderful time skiing with my family. Maybe I'll be able to tackle those blue trails next year! I must have had teachers and parents who praised me for working hard rather than being smart, because I've never worried about asking questions. In fact, I have discovered that the more you know, the more you realize you DON'T know! My new year's resolution is to use praise more effectively in the classroom, never giving false praise and always praising students for their efforts rather than because they are smart.