Indiscriminate Praise in Education

An article in the Washington Post said that high self-esteem does not lead to high success in education. I just wonder what took them so long to discover this. Common sense suggests there are two problems with the indiscriminate praise that so many people used to advocate.

1. People who work hardest are not the people who are satisfied. I once took a course in graduate school that was easy for me, but not for many of the other students. After class one day, I asked the teacher about an extension of an idea presented in the lecture. She offered me extra credit for writing it up. I didn’t write it up, because I knew I was getting an A. I would have learned something if I wrote it up, but why bother? I was satisfied with my grade.

2. Excessive praise stops being a motivation. Suppose a teenager is working on his first job at a fast-food restaurant. The first day, the boss tells him he did a good job. Varied praise is given every day. Another boss gives encouraging words the first day, but saves his praise for when something worth praising occurs. The boss could say he handled the lunch rush well or kept calm with an irate customer. The praise could be for long term behavior, such as, telling him he appreciates how friendly he always is to customers or that he works well with others. But if it is done infrequently, it is more believable. It is also more worth earning, because the praise that is always there is never earned.

If a student is taught that he is wonderful, he has little motivation to get better. I’m glad that common sense has caught up with education.


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