in praise of praise

As I come to later, I was taken back a little by a Sutton Trust report on ‘what makes great teaching’ . [The Sutton Trust is linked here [] and the report itself is at] .

The report says many sensible things about support for learning and the critical importance of feedback. However tucked away was a small section on ‘ineffective practices’ including criticism of ‘lavish’ praise:

‘Praise for students may be seen as affirming and positive, but a number of studies suggest that the wrong kinds of praise can be very harmful to learning.’ In fact this criticism of lavish praise was highlighted in the Sutton Trust’s press release and although the report was focused on ‘great teaching’ press reviews predictably accentuated the negative (‘what we were doing wrong’) including the harmful effects of too much praise. For example TES saw lavish praise as one of the ‘seven deadly sins of teaching’ (the report did not of course say anything about sin but never mind) and praise was the focus an ITV news item:

This is one more example where there was an opportunity for a national conversation about teaching that was sidetracked into a put down of practice – not much evidence of praise, lavish or otherwise, when it comes to the media and teaching. But there is a larger question here, are children (or for that matter adult learners) being praised too much? As it happens a while age I wrote a short reflection on my first experiences of teaching in secondary school, of my first school I noted:

‘Many teachers spent a lot of time mentoring youngsters both informally and formally. I saw impressive ‘active’ tutorial work and a constant appeal to students to behave responsibly and be reasonable when considering other people. Those struggling for language or other reasons were given whatever boost to self-esteem and self-confidence was possible. I remember one girl, let us call her Shahira, an eleven year old who had been working with a teaching assistant in one of my mathematics classes. The assistant sent her to me to show off some work she had done. I said ‘thanks that was good, well done’. Perhaps it was a little perfunctory and Shahira looked a little disappointed. The teaching assistant picked up on this and said: “well done Shahira, this is very good, are you pleased with it? Mr Hammond is very pleased with it, shall we now show the head of the department and see if he is pleased with it? Shahira duly went out to show her work to the head of department and was told, with more enthusiasm than I had mustered, how well she had done. The point is that the teaching assistant understood Shahira’s fragility as a learner in a way that I did not. She would not let Shahira go until she had been convinced about the value of her work and was willing to accept that she had the capacity to learn. I know this kind of reinforcement is maddening for conservative commentators who see explicit ranking of performance as core to the work of a school and ultimately in the best interests of students themselves. However the liberal ethos in my school was very inspiring for me and very different from my own schooling. I had never properly understood what it might be like to struggle academically or lack belief in my potential for learning and the teaching assistant had, whether intentionally or not, pointed this out to me. I thank her to this day for doing so.’

Was I wrong? Well I don’t think so. Self-esteem is core to learning – and many of us are fragile learners, we believe criticism and need to hear praise several times over to believe it. Of course if you only hear the praise and are not given the advice on how you can improve then yes praise is an ‘ineffective practice’. Most teachers follow a ‘two stars and a wish’ approach and this mix of praise and formative feedback is surely effective practice. However praise needs to be seen in context. Praise may indeed be lavish for one but finely tuned for others like Shahira. What the teaching assistant in my story was telling me was that I was not going to get anywhere without looking at each particular child and trying to see the world through her eyes and adapt accordingly.

1 thought on “in praise of praise

  1. Mick – I could’t agree more – this for me is the difference between feedback given (in this case praise) and feedback received. We should spend much more time on understanding the effect of our feedback than the quantity we give (such as marking comments in books).


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