Please Stop Praising Success.

Failure must be acceptable.  The future of our society depends on our ability to take risks as individuals.  Praising success sends our students the wrong message.

The big self-esteem movement that took off in the 80’s (“Oh, this is a great drawing, Timmy!”) started on the wrong foot.  It turns out that such meaningless (and probably inaccurate) praise makes people feel unsure and nervous.  Timmy hears that he’s doing great, but he has no idea why, and secretly he knows it’s only a matter of time before he stops getting lucky and producing these masterpieces in art class.  If he receives praise only on the results of his work, and if it’s not specific, it becomes more and more dangerous for him to keep trying.

Sarah’s parents told her that everything she made was “really great, sweetie!” and when she made something that was very clearly not great they said, it was a “really great try!”  When Zach was in my math class, and couldn’t get through even the most basic conversation about math, I was eager to latch on to anything that sounded like it might make sense and hold it up as a sign of progress for him.

The praise here is crippling because it raises a standard but contains no feedback about how to keep meeting that standard.  What’s so great about this drawing?  Why didn’t you say that my popsicle-stick sculpture was great?  Now I’m 16 and my mom hardly notices when I draw something – she’s mad I doodle in class.  Now I’m in college and no one tells me I’m great atanything.

Oh god.

I’m not great at anything.

I think it is better to value process much more than product in our praise, and to be specific.  Let us never say “great job” again, and instead say, “you kept trying until you got the eyes to be symmetrical,” or “you tried something that didn’t work,” and “it must have taken a lot of patience to glue these sticks together so precisely.”  I want to use phrases like these with a smile and a warm touch, and I want to beam my respect for the bravery to persevere straight from my heart into whatever reservoir of character development I can.

This stuff is so much more important than factoring that it makes my throat clench.

We have to make failure ok by providing our students with opportunities to fail safely.  Teasing about wrong answers cannot be tolerated, and right answers must not be the only things that draw praise from us!  The highest realistic amount of self-esteem a person can have is the knowledge that they’re well prepared, are practiced in the skills they need for a problem, and are willing to try different ideas until they succeed.  Praising process shows our students that they can suggest the kooky idea, or connect our problem with some hare-brained idea from shop class, and raise their hands when they have a question even though no one else does.  Imagine a world full of people like that in communities that not only understand that failure is an indicator of creativity but are also willing to support the people taking the risk of thinking of a new idea.

Thanks for reading.  This is why I try to use specific praise about my students’ work process instead of dispensing vague value judgements about whatever it is they’ve accomplished.  It’s taken me a long time to develop my feelings to this point and, like all of my convictions, this one is bound to be turned upside-down one of these days.  Here’s your chance to praise me for holding a bold position, and instructively point out where you agree and disagree.  Please leave a comment!

18 thoughts on “Please Stop Praising Success.”

  1. This has been a lot on my mind lately, both as a (psych) teacher and a human being wondering about what my own self-esteem is based on and what consequences it has in my life.

    I agree with you that if we want our students to be risk-takers we must encourage risk – like when a student invests time and energy into solving a problem they are not sure they can solve, or is the only person to ask a question, etc. At the same time, the kind of detailed process feedback that you are advocating is difficult for me to achieve, because it requires a moment of contemplation rarely afforded in the fast paced action of my classes.
    Also, I am sometimes worried that NOT connecting achievement to person through praising person for achievement, makes the achievement less important to students. In fact, quite a lot of research supports that high-performing people in cognitively demanding fields tend to have their self-esteem contingent on achievement. They are also at a greater risk for burnout, but that’s a different story. Or is it?

    Yesterday, however, I patted myself on the back for doing this right: after a brief explanation on standard angles in unit circle, a very weak student called me over to ask why sin and cos of 30 degrees is 0.5 and sqrt(3)/2. I connected this back to ratios of 30 degree triangles, and explained that I hadn’t just calculated these numbers in my head, but rather that they were something I had to remember. Then I thanked her for asking the question, and told her that it makes me very happy because it shows that she really wants to understand what we’re doing. She beamed.

    1. Yes, it is much harder to give the kind of feedback I’m talking about. Last summer at camp (I’m a camp director) I tried super-hard to make all of my feedback specific, and I found myself repeating some key phrases, especially with younger campers: “it took bravery to sing that song alone,” “I can tell that you care about other people since you asked me a question about myself,” and other kind of obvious stuff. I was so eager to be specific that I was giving feedback whenever I could think of any.

      It felt a little cheap, but I still thought it was an improvement over “great job” or “you’re awesome” (a previous favorite of mine). Importantly, I got really good at making these comments quickly.

      Congratulations on your success with your trigonometry student. I think that’s much better than “great work” – especially in this context, when she may not be experiencing any real achievement in _math,_ she might miss that she is accomplishing something real _personally._

      Thanks for the comment!

    2. I whole heartedly agree that praise and encouragement of curiosity and an interest in learning (both subject specific and generally) should be foremost in all teachers thoughts.

  2. Well, I obviously (see blog) agree with you on this. The tough part is feeling hokey about the kinds of things you’re saying when you start (or even after trying to talk this way for a while). Also, I worry that the kids think I’m patronizing them when I get excited about a spectacular failure in whiteboarding that the class then works through really well. I honestly think that is much better than when they go up with the correct answer to begin with, but I’m not sure the kids always believe me.

    1. I was directed to your post ( right after I wrote this one and had one of those head-smacking moments: you just said what I’m talking about.

      At camp a few of my counselors where somewhere between thinking I was patronizing them and just being plain uncomfortable with the level of feedback I was giving them. I’d love to get some concrete ideas about how to build so much trust with students that they believe everything I say without worrying that I’m being insincere.

      1. My first impulse is to always just tell the kids what it is that I’m trying to do. You can ask them to catch you when you’re doing it poorly (or well). But basically if they are in on the why, it makes both of you feel less awkward about it.

        Maybe you could try asking “What went well here?” or “What are you proud of [in that problem/experience/interaction/etc]?” And when they say something about the process, you can add “That was one of my favorite parts, too.” or “It’s neat that you did it that way.” Still working on this myself.

  3. agreed! Nurtureshock, the book that inspired my soft skills post, has a fantastic chapter on this that summarizes a great deal of the research behind it. The NYTimes also recently had this article on perfectionism:

    I also agree that this is really hard to do authentically, because sometimes I felt like I was trying too hard or forcing praise. Praising for effort is easier, in that sense, than waiting for students to achieve absolute success, but it also feel trite or generic.

    As a bonus, however, I felt that the more I consciously tried to do this, the more I sincerely appreciated my students’ unique strengths and personalities. It’s like those studies showing we end up believing what we say because we don’t want our thoughts and actions to be inconsistent– by telling my students more that I cared about them as individuals, I actually did.

    1. I get that feeling too, that the kids can tell I’m just trying to think of some feedback for them. Sometimes I alleviated the awkwardness a little by reiterating that my job as a teacher includes giving them as much feedback as I can, and asking them to please bear with me in those moments when it takes a second to gather my thoughts and synthesize some feedback.

      As teachers I think we feel a lot of pressure to be totally natural in our interactions – but if we want to get some of these high-level skills down, practice with different organizations of our class, or try a new style of assessment, or be practicing a new kind of feedback, it’s unrealistic to think we’ll be good at it right away. I wonder if there’s a professional way to tell students, “I’m sorry that sounded trite and generic; I’m trying out a new kind of feedback and I’m not very quick with good comments yet.” Personally, I don’t think my ego is strong enough to say things like that yet 😉

  4. Effort should be praised, but so should success. Otherwise students will get the idea that it is better to fake work and make a mess than to push through to success.

    Students are good at detecting fake praise, so don’t fake it.

    It is ok to give some negative feedback too—some teachers (and parents) seem stuck on the idea that all feedback should be rewards, and that does not work very well either.

    1. I think you’ve hit on something key here. Students (really, people) want to do what they can to earn that praise again. If you praise only putting a lot of writing on the paper, no matter what it is, then perhaps they will just write anything on the paper.

      The key, though, is that when the praise is for “getting the right answer,” it isn’t clear to the student what they should do to earn that praise again. Or rather, the clear thing to do is to only take on “easy” tasks where they feel confident about their success. If they try a hard task and fail, then they weren’t really so good after all. Better to avoid things that look hard and stick to what’s been successful for you before.

      So, back to praising effort. If you say, for example, “I really like the way you kept trying different strategies when your first idea didn’t work. You kept with it long enough to figure it out.” Then the message is: If I want to get that praise again, I should stick with it when I’m trying a hard problem.

      Or, “Hey, I was really impressed by the way you made sure to keep units attached to every number. It helped you realize that something was wrong because you were getting m*s for the velocity instead of m/s. Let’s figure out what happened.”

      At any rate, this is my understanding of what the research on praise is finding.

      1. Yes, that is the point I was trying to make. I use it with my son all the time, praising him for the genuine effort he puts in (for science fair, for example). I find it harder to do with my grad students and seniors, as I have a harder time figuring out whether they have put in a lot of effort, unless I see some results. (I work in a computational field, and most of the students work from home, rather than being present in a lab all day.)

        I do try to praise students for doing things that they were not specifically instructed to do, in an attempt to increase their independence. Mostly, I look for small successes that can be praised, to offset the more negative tone of many of my suggestions.

  5. I think the key here (like SBG) is for the feedback to be timely, low-stakes, and frequent. It shocks me how many of my students have made it 16-17 years without being given or learning to deal with real feedback (whether positive or constructive).

    My students write their “math stories” at the beginning of the semester, and a high percentage of them include a sentence that goes along the lines of “I thought I was good at math until ___ [insert unaccustomed failure here]” or “I thought I was terrible at math until ____ [insert unaccustomed success here].” Reading both types of experiences, I wish I could rewind their math careers and help them see the value of creativity, perseverance, and practice instead of the emotionally high-stakes right/wrong success/failure dichotomy they seem to see in math.

  6. Reading this (as I did weeks ago and have left it open in a tab as I’ve mulled it over) got me thinking about 2 books I have read or reread recently. The first, Choice Words by Peter Johnston, I have read several times and value more each reading. Our language is critical and I think that is especially true when it comes to praise. The second book, Mindset by Carol Dweck, helps see why language is so critical. We are setting students up, as others have mentioned, to only take on easy tasks. We need to be encouraging them to take risks as learners. We have an awful lot of power as teachers and parents.

    1. I liked Mindset, too (tho’ I thought it was basically a book-long version of the article I read about it, and a promo for her program designed carefully not to give too much away).
      We had a professional development session at the college where I’m staff, categorizing people by their generations, including that group of people who, indeed, just don’t quite understand why nobody at work is giving them stars on their charts. It’s a challenge to be specific — *and* to make sure ownership is the student’s.

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