Monday, November 26, 2007

Unearned praise

Here's a comment I made in response to a post on New York Times blog "Well."

A tale of automatic, unearned praise:

When my son was about a year old, I enrolled him in an 8-week swimming class for babies 0-2 held at a local elementary school and sponsored through the public school system.

We went to the first class together, but weren’t able to attend the second week.

A few days before the date of the third week’s session, we received a letter from the school system notifying us that the pool had closed for renovation and would not be operational again for several months. (No refund was available, but that’s not the point of the story.)

Two months later, my son received a gilt-edged certificate in the mail praising him for completing the 8-week swimming program.

— Posted by VesnaVK

The original post/article was by Tara Parker-Pope and titled "Are Kids Getting Too Much Praise?" The URL and article text follows below. The premise of the article intrigued me, but I thought the article itself was put together in a slipshod way. Many of the readers' comments nicely expose various logical gaps.

The examples of good praise vs. bad, for example, I think are all examples of bad praise -- they don't get specific enough with their specificity. More useful than "You did great on your math test," for example, might be, "I notice that you can see how little parts fit into a big pattern," or "Practicing all those addition problems over and over really paid off when you took your math test."

I also like the idea that I got from -- I think it was the book "Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline," which is a horribly uncatchy title, although it makes sense when you parse it. That author suggests asking a child what they think of a particular accomplishment or creation, rather than automatically jumping in with a compliment. This is especially true, I think, when the topic at hand is something the child might have some uncertainty about. Tuning in to see what sort of emotional guidance the child needs is, I think, better than assuming that cheerleading is always the answer.

For instance, "How do you feel about that math test?" might be a useful conversation opener. Even if the grade was perfect, the answer might be, "I wish I'd studied harder," or "It was too easy -- it didn't feel like I even did anything." Imposing a positive statement like "You did great on that math test!" at the outset might shut out the possibility of real conversation.

Then there's the comparison made between the Korean vs. American kids. The study that the NYT and Scholastic articles describe didn't measure how much praise the children were given. It measured how good the children thought their math skills were, and how good their math skills actually were.

Even if it turned out there was a difference in praise given the two groups, the difference in achievement could result from any number of other factors. So might the difference in how the children describe their skill levels.

Some readers commented that the Korean culture values humility while ours encourages statements of self-confidence. In any case, the fact that few Korean students say they excel at math tells us little.

Here's that NYTimes article:

An excess of praise may be doing kids more harm than good.

A cover story in this month’s Scholastic Instructor magazine asks whether kids today are “overpraised.'’ The concern is that by focusing on self-esteem and confidence building, parents and teachers may be giving real goals and achievement short shrift. The article cites a recent study in which eighth graders in Korea and the United States were asked whether they were good at math. Among the American students, 39 percent said they were excellent at math, compared to just 6 percent of the Korean eighth graders. But the reality was somewhat different. The Korean kids scored far better in math than the over-confident American students.

The notion that you can praise a kid too much is heresy to parents and teachers who have long believed that building self-esteem should be the cornerstone of education. If kids believe in themselves, the thinking goes, achievement will naturally follow. But confidence doesn’t always produce better students. Scholastic cites a 2006 report on education from the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center that found that countries in which families and schools emphasize self-esteem for students lag behind cultures where self-esteem isn’t a major focus.

The problem with this “rah-rah mentality,'’ as the magazine describes it, is that it can take away the sense of satisfaction that comes from genuine achievement. “Self-esteem is based on real accomplishments,” Robert Brooks, faculty psychologist at Harvard Medical School, told the magazine. “It’s all about letting kids shine in a realistic way.”

The downside of too much praise is that kids may start to focus on the reward rather than what they are learning. Worse, failure can be devastating and confusing for a student whose confidence is based on an inflated ego, rather than his or her actual abilities, the magazine notes. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t praise our kids or that teachers shouldn’t try to engender self-confidence. But self-esteem should be the result of good grades and achievement, not false accomplishments.

Last month, Cognitive Daily reported that parents and teachers should be specific rather than general when they dispense praise. An example of general praise is telling a child, “You’re smart.'’ Specific praise would be to say, “You did a good job reading,'’ or “You did great on your math test.'’ Kids who receive general praise about their abilities are more likely to exhibit “helpless” behavior when they encounter problems with learning, compared with kids who receive specific praise about their achievement on a task. The reason: a child who knows she’s a smart girl feels defeated if she has trouble reading a sentence. But a child who has been told she is a good reader is more likely to have confidence in that specific ability and work a little harder to tackle a more difficult book.

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