What the Way We Learn Says About the Way We Teach: Appropriate Praise

After reading Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide for my course, Universal Design for Learning, I had a lot of takeaways on teaching and learning. Earlier I wrote about the implications for the development of teachers over time. The key being not just experience, but constant reflection and analysis of mistakes.

The other piece of this chapter that really struck a chord with me was a summary of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s research on praise, motivation and learning. Over 400 fifth graders in New York City were a part of this study which tested the effects of praise based on ability versus effort. Students were given the same test, but half were complimented on their efforts while the other half were told they were smart.

The students who received praise for their effort were more likely to choose a more difficult test afterward, choose to learn from students who did better on a third test designed for 8th graders, and to do better on a second administration of the original test. The students who were “smart” avoided a more difficult test, chose to look at students who did worse on the 8th grade test, and actually scored lower on the second administration of the original test. The implications of this research in the classroom are self-evident. It’s instinctive for a lot of us to praise our students by saying how smart they are, but if we neglect to praise effort, we are in fact setting them up for failure through our good intentions.

I made another connection between this research and education however when I thought about the members of my generation who have been drawn to teaching. The fact that generally our generation has been raised with a lot more praise, a lot of it most likely ability-based rather than effort-based, has been examined at length.

When thinking of its consequences for education I thought about Teach for America and to some extent similar programs like NYC Teaching Fellows (I was a member of Cohort 14 in 2007). These are our country’s “best and brightest”. The selectivity of TFA inherently affirms this status. Once you’ve been admitted, you’ve essentially been told, “You are very smart.” For many this is just the latest in a long sequence of ability-based praise. What happens when these young people are tested in the classroom?

Young teachers, TFA or otherwise, need certain tools to show resilience in the face of adversity in the classroom. For many, this might be the first genuine experience with high-stakes failure. If we want them to learn and persist we need to be thoughtful about the way they are prepared to deal with this. This means explicitly addressing the likelihood of struggle for these young teachers, rather than inculcating them with the myth of the novice teacher as superhero. Once they are in the classroom, it is vital that feedback is crafted and communicated in a way that supports growth, reflection and persistence.

Whether we’re talking about first-year teachers or veterans, it’s clear that the learning process has a lot to do with the teaching process. If we want a teaching force of experts it will take more than time in the classroom or bringing in the “smartest” people. We need a system and schools within it that encourages ongoing learning.


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