In the decades since self-esteem came to be recognized as a crucial element in what we are able to accomplish in life, a corollary effort spread through classrooms: “building” positive self-esteem by making it easy for children to win praise. This was expected to motivate learning achievement. Children would “stay on task,” perform well, feel smart, and enjoy learning. However, pouring on praise didn’t necessarily have those outcomes.
Instead, researchers found that automatic, excessive praise for intelligence and correct performance could weaken children’s intrinsic learning motivation. It distracted them from focusing on the activity that prompted the praise. They lost interest in the activity for its own sake, and kept working only as long as the teacher did the “motivating” for them by giving approval. The motivation shifted toward getting more praise, rather than getting the satisfaction from learning that actually strengthens self-worth.
Carol Dweck’s studies (2006, pp. 170–180) uncovered another significant aspect of learning motivation: one that applies to adults, as well as children. It is whether an individual believes that intelligence is a permanent, unchanging quality, or that intelligence is a potential which can develop and grow. A “fixed-intelligence” believing child, who is praised for intelligence and good performance, associates being smart with being worthy. A lot is at stake if this child’s performance slips, and some part of learning doesn’t come easily. Doubts about being smart and worthy creep in. It seems safer, then, to avoid a challenging activity, because in this view, “only people who aren’t smart have to work hard to learn.” The challenging problems aren’t seen as opportunities to learn more, and the child’s performance suffers.
In contrast, the child who believes intelligence can grow, and who is helped to work more effectively, is likely to tackle challenges and grow smarter! When these children’s efforts are encouraged after a setback, they are helped to focus on the process of their work. They stay with the activity because they are trying to understand something new, and become more competent. They are empowered to learn.
Alfie Kohn (2006) helps us resist the chorus of excessive praise. He points out that even though praise is positive, it is a judgment. It isn’t necessary to constantly judge children in order to encourage them. Instead, he suggests joining with them to celebrate their accomplishments, by giving nonjudgmental feedback on what they are doing.
Differences between encouraging feedback and pointless praise are illustrated in the table below.
When children invest their attention deeply in an activity and achieve a meaningful result, or when they go beyond what is expected of them and uncover something new, they grow. They feel the joy of meeting a challenge. These rewarding feelings of increased personal competence are the genuine sources of intrinsic learning motivation.
Pointless Praise Versus Encouraging Feedback
|Situation||Pointless Praise||Versus Encouraging Feedback|
|Amelia checks her seed-sprouting jar. She exclaims, "My sprouts have leaves!"||"Aren't you smart?"||"It's exciting to see that happen."|
|Jake beams with joy when he gets two loads balanced on the scale.||"Good job!"||"It feels great to finally get both sides even!"|
|Nina reports doing yesterday's light-bending experience a new way at home. It worked!||"Superscientist!"||"You kept exploring and figured out something new!"|
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