Does Praise Fuel Complacency and Low Expectations

Proponents of privatizing public education or dismantling it completely and starting over generally claim the American education system is not adequately preparing children to be career ready nor is the current system preparing students to compete with students from other countries in the global market.  To support their claims they cite the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) and TIMMS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) reports that show dismal academic rankings especially in mathematics for American students as compared to other students around the world.  It is often hard to argue with them when the rankings year after year show a steady decline in where American students rank compared to the world.  As a result, everywhere we turn there is someone telling us that American education is broken, but is it really, or is it simply lagging due to certain practices that although well intentioned may be actually crippling American children?

I seriously doubt foreign students are any smarter than American students, and I seriously doubt teachers in other countries are working any harder than American teachers, so what is the difference?  Why is American education seemingly slipping further behind each year?  It would be hard to lay claim to any single factor, but in her book, The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way, Amanda Ripley conducted a survey that may offer some clues.  The survey was designed to identify meaningful distinctions between the American educational experience and the educational experience of students in foreign countries such as South Korea, Finland, Poland, and Germany.

One distinction Ripley drew from her survey that might cause a stir among American educators and parents is how praise is used in American schools as compared to schools around the world.  According to Ripley’s survey American teachers, especially those in math, were much more likely to praise student work than teachers in the other countries.  Most people would probably say that is a good thing, and until recently I would have been one of them.  Of course, I still believe that using praise with children is important, but what I am beginning to realize is that praise can sometimes be counterproductive if not used properly.  As strange as it may sound, praise may actually fuel complacency and low expectations if teachers and parents are not careful.

The first time I witnessed the counterproductive aspects of praise occurred during my brief stint as an interim K-2 principal.  One day while visiting a first grade classroom, I observed a teacher praising a first grade child for improving his math work.  “Wow,” the teacher said, “you did a really super job on this assignment!  I am so proud of you.  You really know your math.”  The child beamed from ear to ear as the teacher praised him then moved on to the next student.  A couple of minutes later, the teacher assistant called the child to a work center table to work on math skills.  The child sat down politely at the table, but it was obvious that he was totally unimpressed with the work the assistant teacher put in front of him.  In fact, he refused to do it.  No matter what the assistant teacher tried, she could not get him to focus on the work.  Finally, the teacher made her way back to the little boy and knelt down next to him.  “I am so disappointed in how you are behaving,” the teacher said softly.  The little boy’s bottom lip began to quiver slightly as his eyes dropped to the table, “But you said you were proud of me,” he said.  The teacher laid her hand gently on his hand, and said, “I am, but . . . .”  “No,” the little boy said louder, “you said I did really super work.”  “You did,” the teacher acknowledged, “but . . . .”  “No,” the little fellow interrupted again a little louder, “You said I really know my math!”  “Yes,” the teacher said a little firmer, “I said both those things, but . . . .”  The little boy jerked his hand away from the teacher, a big tear rolling down his cheek, “You said you were proud of me, and that I really knew my math.”  “I am proud of you,” the teacher said trying to calm and reason with him, “and you do know your math.”  “Then why do I need to do more?” the little boy asked, and defiantly crossed his arms.  If you think about it for a moment, the little fellow had a valid point; his teacher had praised him for knowing his math, so in his mind there was no need to take it any further.  He was already good in math – his teacher had told him so.  End of story.

Of course, as adults we understand the teacher was using praise to motivate the child to continue to work hard; however, he interpreted what she said as meaning he was “good enough” in math, and therein is the problem with praise.  To work effectively praise must be used in moderation and be specific as well as accurate – anything less invites misinterpretation.  I observed another example of praise gone wrong one day when I tried to help my granddaughter with her 2nd grade math homework.  She had been struggling with math all school year, but finally she appeared to have turned the corner when she made a “C” on her report card for the nine weeks.  However, as I tried to work with her on her homework assignment, I could tell she was not interested in the least in focusing on the lesson.  Trying to motivate her, I mentioned the “C” she had made on her report card and how proud everyone was of her, but if she wanted to do even better and make a “B” the next nine weeks, she would have to work harder.  “Oh, no,” she said, “My mommy and daddy said they are so proud of me, and as long as I do my best and can make a “C” they are happy.”  “But wouldn’t you like to make a “B”?” I asked.  “No,” she said, “C’s are happy.”  That was the end of the math lesson, and an eye opening lesson for me.  Although it was certainly not her parents’ or my intent, our praise of average performance effectively helped lower expectations of the child for herself.  After all her struggles, we were so elated and relieved with a middle of the road “C” that we piled on the praise thinking it would motivate her to try harder in the future.  However, our praise resulted in hobbling the child, which was certainly not our intent.

Ripley says, “Excessive, vague, or empty praise has corrosive effects, as multiple studies have shown, incentivizing kids to take fewer risks and give up more easily.”  Could this be what is happening in America?  In a society where everything must be politically correct, everybody is considered equal regardless of talent or work ethic, and everybody is not just a winner but a champion with a trophy to prove it, building self-esteem has become such a dominating force in our lives that maybe the way in which we praise our children is actually encouraging them to be satisfied with mediocrity.   Praise is intended to motivate to a higher plane of achievement, but when used too liberally or if not specific enough, we may unintentionally be crippling our children in today’s competitive world.

What do you think?


©Jack Linton, May 18, 2014

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