Limitations of Praise in Teaching

Many teachers tend to praise children a lot. Expressions like “well done,” “nice work,” or “good girl/boy” fall easily from our lips when a child gives a right answer, completes a task well, or contributes a constructive comment.

In time some children may come to rely on the comments for affirmation or to know they have done something well, even if they’re not sure what it is. The comments promote reliance on the teacher rather than self-reliance. Children may be disappointed with a subsequent teacher or in life more generally if every effort they make is not responded to positively.

But after a while, for many children, such comments become meaningless. They may be given with little thought and if overused, their effect differs little from hearing “okay,” “that’s fine” “thank you for that” or “I see.”

Sincere or thoughtful feedback – oral or written – on the other hand, can give meaningful, specific and helpful guidance to a child. This is different to the “could be better” response I frequently received from a teacher (and which is always true).

Alternative options for feedback include:

  • “I think what you are trying to do here is to order these vehicles by their maximum speed” (Clarifying for the child what goal they are trying to achieve)
  • “Your story is about being shipwrecked on a desert island and your description of the island makes it seem realistic” (Relating the feedback to success on achieving the goal)
  • “You have identified clearly the main characters involved. Can you state what role each one played in the event?” (Identifying progress made so far)
  • “Would you consider rewriting those sentences from the perspective of someone your age who lives in that country?” (Stating a way in which the work can be improved)
  • “You were asked to explain why that industry began in that area and you have referred to the availability of raw materials that are available locally” (Identifying one success or pointing out a way in which the task was correctly interpreted).
  • “You seem to have transcribed this directly from the internet rather than paraphrasing it in your own words.” ( Correcting an error or pointing out a way in which the task was incorrectly interpreted)
  • “You already know that there are sixty minutes in one hour….” (Reminding the child of something relevant they already know)
  • “Remember last week when you listed times when capital letters are used. Can you apply those rules here?” (Encouraging the child to use prior knowledge to self-assess)
  • “The way you linked those gymnastics movements made the sequence look graceful.” (Linking compliments about the child to performance on the task)

Whatever kind of feedback you give, it needs to be expressed in a way that the child receiving it can understand. A child’s age has a bearing too on how public or private feedback needs to be. More nuanced and detailed information about feedback is available from this article which inspired many of the points made above.

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