By Jessica Kelmon, Associate Editor
I played violin as a kid. And I was fantastic – at least, I thought I was. My clear memory is of childhood greatness, the next Hilary Hahn. My mom begs to differ, however. "No," she told me recently at a family event. "You really weren’t very good, it was just a really positive, experimental type of class." Huh. It’s hard to reconcile her version with my memory. Probably because the teacher kept telling me how great I was.
And that, in a nutshell, is a problem in schools today – at least according to Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, whose work is based on a growing area of research on how good and bad praise affects a child’s motivation.
For decades, schools have been all about building self-esteem and handing out "empty praise." 'You’re so smart,' was the ultimate accolade, while 'A for effort' was like second prize in a beauty contest. But a growing body of research is making clear that adults' good intentions to bolster kids' self-esteem is resulting in a generation of kids who are "praise junkies," afraid to try new challenges that could jeopardize their head-of-the-class reps. It’s the unspecific, over-the-top ("You’re so smart!" "You’re the best!") praise that can hinder kids' education, while specific praise for taking risks and tackling difficult tasks ("You worked so hard on that!") helps kids enjoy challenges and be more successful.
A new article in the Washington Post documents how this research is now being understood:
"Children also perform better in the long term when they believe that their intellect is not a birthright but something that grows and develops as they learn new things.
Brain imaging shows how this is true, how connections between nerve cells in the cortex multiply and grow stronger as people learn and practice new skills."
As the Washington Post reports, based on this research educators at a handful of schools across the country are experimenting with new forms of praise that encourages risk-taking and learning from failure. Teachers at a Virginia middle school gave their students a primer on brain development to help the kids understand that they learn better by making new connections and solving problems on their own. Teachers went on to modify their instruction methods, including how and what they praised – curbing their enthusiasm and replacing it with patience while kids work out things on their own. Teachers also were sure to give specific approbation for hard work and effort.
Former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle A. Rhee cites another drawback to general/over-praising: self-assessments that are way off (like mine, with my now questionable violin skills). The Washington Post article includes an anecdote Rhee shares about her kids: "[Rhee] often recounts a story about how her daughters’ many soccer trophies are warping their sense of their athletic abilities. Her daughters 'suck at soccer,' she said in a radio interview last January. 'We’ve become so obsessed with making kids feel good about themselves that we’ve lost sight of building the skills they need to actually be good at things,' Rhee said."
Do you think your kids are victims of empty praise at home or school?