To Praise or NOT to Praise?

I raised four children and taught countless others doling out praise liberally in daily parenting and teaching exchanges–thinking that this would encourage the child to learn.  In the last few years however, I began to read a lot about the role of praise in raising and teaching children.  A recent article in our local Pembroke Observer newspaper, “To praise or not to praise?” (Richard, 2015), brought the issue to my attention once again.  The author references research work being done at Ohio State University where psychologists and researchers urge parents to be careful about how they dole out praise to their children if they want to avoid creating narcissistic “praise junkies”.  They have determined that well-intentioned parents intuitively try to encourage their children by praising them, not realizing that they are excluding values such as “empathy, consideration for others, and teamwork”.

Patiently helping feed little sisterDetermined to get things right, I have been attempting to ‘grandparent’ without praise for a few months now.  Now that’s tough, because my four grandchildren really are the most beautiful, smartest, treasured babies in the whole wide world!  Oops, sorry.  Slipped again.  That’s exactly the kind of praise I’m trying to get away from.  It’s important to focus on the ‘work’ and ‘process’ part of a task.  So I find myself saying things like, “You were so patient and worked really hard to feed your little sister”.   Or, “I love the way you and your younger sister worked together to build that puzzle.”

While the article addresses parents, I would like to consider the implications for teachers and make some suggestions as to how this approach to praise can work in the classroom with good effect.

First to consider is the typical way a teacher asks questions in class.  Teacher poses a question; hands are raised; and the teacher calls on someone to answer the question.  If the student answers correctly the teacher says, “Right”, or “Good Job”.  Think about this dynamic carefully to see what hidden messages are being reinforced here. When a student raises her hand, she is really saying, “Pick me!”  When the teacher praises the response, she is really saying, “you are smarter than the others”.  A competitive environment is created.  Sure, a little bit of competition is good but we also need to intentionally teach empathy and teamwork.  My observations from numerous classrooms is that there is a serious imbalance between the two entities: competition vs empathy/teamwork.  One way to address this imbalance is to include planned cooperative learning (CL) structures in your teaching practice.  An effective CL structure will include positive interdependence, individual accountability, equal participation, and simultaneous interactions (PIES) (Kagan, 2009). I have referred to CL and PIES in earlier posts so will focus now on only the positive interdependence part.  When we teach by asking questions and expecting students to raise their hand if they have the correct answer, we are emphasizing NEGATIVE interdependence.  That is, one child’s success is dependent on another child’s failure.  Where is the empathy in that?  The challenge is to design activities differently so that we create opportunities for POSITIVE interdependence.  There are countless ways to do this.  Some examples: Think-Pair-Share/Pairs Together; Inside-Outside Circle; Numbered Heads Together; Quiz Quiz Trade; Round Robin; etc…

PAIRS TOGETHER--A 'No Hands' Approach.

PAIRS TOGETHER–A ‘No Hands’ Approach.

Where to begin?

1. Reflect on  your practice and how you might change things up to include POSITIVE Interdependence.

2. Find a CL structure to use instead of the traditional Pose-Response-Praise method described above.  (A simple google search of cooperative learning strategies will give you many options; or try one of the ones I mentioned).

3. Try it! Modify and improve it, and try it again!

4. Then try a different CL structure.

Soon you will be convinced that CL can enhance the learning and the learning environment for every student in your class.

Do that, and I will PRAISE you for your EFFORTS!

Happy teaching!


Richard, J. (2015, March 21). To praise or not to praise? The Pembroke Observer, p. B3.

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24 Responses to To Praise or NOT to Praise?

  1. Valerie Tan says:

    For example, when a student is solving a division question, a teacher can praise the student for the effort in getting the steps right (multiply, minus, bring down the next number) although the answer was not correct.

    • ardenn says:

      Or even praise the student for coming up with questions they can ask about the process. The division algorithm is mechanical and tough, but it helps if you understand why each step works the way it does. I like to have students do lots of division without the algorithm…that is mentally, or with manipulatives. Then when I introduce the algorithm they understand it better. You are right though…you can definitely praise the ‘stick-to-itiveness’ involved in that convoluted algorithm.

  2. Grace Tan says:

    Hi Arlene, nice article!
    I agree with your points on how a simple praise could carry a few hidden meaning along with it. Indeed, it is important for us, educators to be aware of the types of reinforcement we choose to use. Regarding your title: To praise or not to praise?, I think that it also depends on the types of situation we are in when praising the child.

    Like you said, we praise for their efforts!

    • Grace Tan says:

      An example of a good praise that we can use when teaching Maths could be “I see that there is an improvement in your studies…..keep up the good work!”

      • ardenn says:

        Students need to hear that there is improvement. We need to be careful to be specific, by adding something like…”I noticed you took time to solve that problem by using manipulatives (mention the specific manipulative) and tried different ways to show your solution.

  3. Joyce says:

    Thank you Arlene for your sharing. In fact, our teacher has did some of the activities with us in our class! Personally, I find it both meaningful and fun at the same time. Although it’s a rather simple activity, there are so many variations and improvisation which could be made to suit our classroom context.

    On a side note, the points that you raised really caught me thinking! It’s amazing to see how one action can imply 2 things at the same time. To praise or not to praise?

    • Joyce says:

      An example of a good praise which I have thought that could be used in maths class would be “I noticed that many of you had hand in your homework on time today. Let’s give each other a big round of applause”.

      • ardenn says:

        Yes, and you are rewarding the work that they did. Too often, we reward that it is correct and ignore the work and thinking that went into it. You could even be more specific, and comment on certain aspects of the homework that were different or challenging.

      • Joyce says:

        Alright Arlene! I will take note of it! Thank you for your suggestion and comment. 🙂

    • ardenn says:

      Yes, there are so many ‘simple’ things one can do that make such a big difference over all. I would love to hear any suggestions too!

  4. Mayuri says:

    An example of good praise: when a student did a mistake in her math solution, instead of scolding her in front of the class, I would say “good effort you did I there, your answer is right but there is a slight mistake in your solution”. Then I would point out to her where exactly her mistakes are and teacher her the correct step to approach that question.

  5. Eunice says:

    An example of a good praise when teaching Math would be giving specific praises to students. For example, “Hey Kim, you did a good job in the Math quiz! You’ve improved from your previous quiz! Keep the good work up!”. This would make student feels valued as the teacher actually pays attention on him and is hoping that he will do better in future. Thus, giving him the motivation to put more effort in learning Math the next time.

    • ardenn says:

      What do you mean by “good job”? You want to be careful that you are not just praising the correct answers. But you might say, ” I noticed you put in a lot of effort since the last quiz. You particularly worked at….”

  6. Amanda Lee says:

    I think that when we praise students, we should always praise their efforts. Instead of saying “you are so smart!”(smartness should not be something we focus on) We should say things like “I am proud to see you improve in your fractions! Keep it up!” By doing this, students will feel encouraged because their effort is recognized.

    • ardenn says:

      I agree. When we praise “smartness we are sending messages to be perfect, be correct. When we actually want to encourage struggle and making mistakes. Mistakes are great learning sites. We want to be careful to be specific. What about fractions are they good at? If not specific, it might be misinterpreted as generic praise.

  7. I think that when we praise students, we should always praise their efforts. Instead of saying “you are so smart!”(smartness should not be something we focus on) We should say things like “I am proud to see you improve in your fractions! Keep it up!” By doing this, students will feel encouraged because their effort is recognized.

    • ardenn says:

      I agree, saying “you are smart” sends out messages that they need to be perfect and focus on answers. I think this can even discourage real thinking/learning. So we also need to be careful about the specificity of comments….what does “improve in your fractions” mean? It could mean “you did them perfectly”. We want them to work at finding ways to model their thinking in fractions and solve related problems.

  8. Nina says:

    – I see that you have attempted all the hundred Math questions I gave you over the weekend. Keep up your effort.

    • ardenn says:

      Hopefully they weren’t really given 100 questions but it is certainly a good idea to praise their efforts. To improve this praise/feedback even further you could speak to a specific part of the homework questions that required thinking and effort rather than just recall.

  9. Kit May says:

    I think a good praise I can use while teaching Maths is:
    “Oh, that’s a brilliant way to solve this equation! You did this and this step without having to use a calculator. You figured this out well!”

    This is not the general “good job” kind of praise. I would be using my finger or pen to point out the exact steps they did well. I would not want to give general or too common praises because they may not even know what exactly are they praised for.
    This can work for individual students and even in group work. So students know their strengths and can work on areas of improvement.

    • ardenn says:

      I think it’s effective that you are specific in your feedback and praise. I particularly like the comment about not using a calculator to highlight that the student worked hard and thought of other solutions.

    • ardenn says:

      I think this would be very effective in encouraging thinking and working at solving problems.

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