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.
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!