Steve Heisler

Teacher Author Speaker


"Every single child wants to be successful. The problem is, if they can't be successful at being successful, they'll be successful at screwing up. Our job as educators is to change the latter to the former."    

- from the The Missing Link by Steve Heisler

What Really Matters About Praise

In the Department of almost perfect, a seventh grade science class teacher asked a student a question to which he couldn't quite get the answer. The gutsy teacher stayed with him, offering a couple of hints and best of all, almost two minutes of wait time and incorrect answers. The kid really hung in and finally got the answer.

"Friction," he said.

"Absolutely," said the teacher, obviously and rightly pleased. "exactly right, Great job."

I know that there are a lot of debates regarding praise. No less an educational authority than Alfre Cohen says that praise weakens students, makes them dependent on others rather than able to take care of themselves. To a large extent, I do agree, however, when it comes to praise, all praise is not always the same.

Weak praise, non specific praise (such as noted in the example) and worst of all, meaningless praise and praising the wrong stuff all contribute to making praise less useful and sometimes weakening. It may be a chicken and egg argument but it does seem that in order for a child to understand and be able to praise him or herself independently of other's opinions, they first must internalize a sense of what is praiseworthy and some kind of system to independently measure him or herself accurately. Specificity, rather than generalities, are what drive this process. 'Great use of an descriptive adjective' beats 'great job' every time.

What matters is that praise be used to guide a student's understanding of his or her own strengths; the real purpose of praise should not be praise but the ability to self-assess. In the case above, it was not the answer itself. He got it right,  but so what? What was critical was that the student did not quit, he didn't give up, he stayed with the "problem" until he got it solved which is a far more critical skill to develop.

Einstein often noted that he was not unusually smarter than others (well, actually he probably was) but that he was unusually willing to stay with a problem longer (he probably was that, too). Employ a meaningful use of praise to help a student connect the dots between his own strengths, and the strengths of one of the world's greatest thinkers, and you are not almost there, you are really finally onto what really matters.