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In praise of neutrality

In Let’s Think in English (LTE) we support teachers to review their practise providing recommendations for them to trial and reflect upon while teaching our lessons. Without doubt the recommendation that creates the greatest emotional response is adopting a neutral stance in LTE lessons and avoiding explicit praise. This is met with immediate cries of “I don’t think I could do that” or quizzical looks. Yet many teachers conclude the course seeing the virtues of neutrality and start to consider more carefully when and how to use praise in the classroom.

Pause to consider praise

I think it is fair to say in general teachers believe praise has a positive effect on children. We tend to praise pupils’ accomplishments and believe this will act as a boost to their motivation and self-esteem therefore leading to further accomplishments. We use praise to draw attention to a behaviour or process we wish to encourage.

However our intention when praising and the consequence of the praise can be quite different. Praise is not a simple one-way transaction. It is a complex social communication where the recipient’s role is as important as the giver. As Alfie Kohn suggests in his article “Criticizing (common criticisms) of praise” (2012):

“Praise is a verbal reward, often doled out in an effort to change someone’s behavior, typically someone with less power. More to the point, it’s likely to be experienced as controlling regardless of the praiser’s intention.”

Consider when another has praised your efforts or accomplishment but left you feeling cold. Why might that be? One reason may be due to the how fitting the praise provided is. Was the last response you offered really “brilliant”? If not, the praise is unlikely to have the desired motivating effect and may cause you to doubt the authenticity of the giver. The Sutton Trust’s 2014 report: “What makes great teaching?” highlighted the following as an ineffective:

“Praise for students may be seen as affirming and positive, but a number of studies suggest that the wrong kinds of praise can be very harmful to learning. For example, Dweck (1999), Hattie & Timperley (2007). “

Stipek (2010) argues that praise that is meant to be encouraging and protective of low attaining students actually conveys a message of the teacher’s low expectations. Children whose failure was responded to with sympathy were more likely to attribute their failure to lack of ability than those who faced criticism. As Stipek explained:

“Praise for successful performance on an easy task can be interpreted by a student as evidence that the teacher has a low perception of his or her ability. As a consequence, it can actually lower rather than enhance self-confidence. Criticism following poor performance can, under some circumstances, be interpreted as an indication of the teacher’s high perception of the student’s ability.”

It’s a term I use in almost every blog post but praise has to be used judiciously and with all research findings we need to give teachers the support and time to consider the implications in their setting with their pupils. Praise should provide specific feedback on learning goals rather than hyperbolic general praise like “brilliant”. Arguments against generic indiscriminate praise was raised by Carol Dweck (2007) in her article “The Perils and Promises of Praise”:

“The wrong kind of praise creates self-defeating behavior. The right kind motivates students to learn.”

Let’s Think in English and the neutral classroom

The explicit intent of Let’s Think lessons is to develop pupils’ thinking processes initially in a specific domain. In LTE we seek to develop pupils’ cognition when reading texts. When we started the programme and considered how best to teach the lessons the role of praise didn’t feature. In fact, Laurie Smith and I along with the teachers from the early research/development group in 2009 would use praise freely.

However when observing LTE lessons we started to notice a number of issues. Firstly, pupils explicitly sought praise from their teacher; they were trying to guess what was in the teachers’ mind so they would be rewarded whereas our interest lay in hearing and assessing the pupils’ own thoughts rather than their attempts to please their teacher. We felt pupils’ thoughts were valuable and should be shared freely.

Secondly, when teachers praised a pupil’s answer it frequently stopped their line of argument with the pupil seeing no gain in elaborating or developing their point further. The praise was seen as the end of the learning journey; a final destination reached. Furthermore we started to realise pupils with opposing or different thoughts would usually drop their idea once the teacher praised an idea especially if the pupil being praised was viewed as high attaining.

We started to experiment with a more neutral response to student responses. In effect we would respond to pupils by asking them to tell us more seeking elaboration or ask other pupils for their views. A common response to pupil contributions was to thank them rather than explicitly evaluate their responses.

This is not to say we weren’t evaluating their responses. We were continually evaluating responses but internally rather than verbalising immediate judgements. Instead of using praise to give validity to the “correct” response we would pause and consider “rich” responses instead. The “rich” response would be the response that would help the class better understand the text. We didn’t praise this response but we would slow the class down to pay greater attention to it by saying: “Let’s consider what X said” or “Go back to your groups do you agree with what X said, can you add to it?”. Where overt praise had led to a termination of further discussion, the nudge to elaborate and consider a response gave momentum to further thought and discussion.

We noticed a very quick change in the classroom once praise and judgement were removed. Pupils start to feel liberated and would offer their point of view without fear of being wrong. In fact, it led to an interesting change in the classroom dynamic where lower attaining pupils started to challenge the ideas of the perceived higher attainers. Once more it may be helpful to point out we didn’t claim there were no right or wrong responses in our lessons, we were clear there were likely to better responses. However, we emphasised that all responses would lead us to understand the text better even if we decided as the lesson progressed that some ideas were not “reasonable” and so removed them from further consideration.

Another consequence of removing praise was it encouraged critical evaluation of the thoughts shared. Once pupils adjusted to the removal of explicit praise from their teacher they started to engage with the points shared. It appeared teacher praise supported passive listening whereas now pupils had to listen more carefully as they would be asked their opinion on their peers’ point of view. Importantly pupils would still receive feedback but it was no longer judgemental but rather either supportive “I/we agree with” or “ I’d like to build upon..” or indeed challenging “ We think differently to …” “I’d like to challenge..”.

We know caring, supportive student-teacher relationships are linked to better school performance and engagement, greater emotional regulation, social competence, and willingness to take on challenges (Osher et al., 2018) . However removing praise doesn’t mean the classroom is less supportive in fact we’d argue it becomes more supportive as a community of enquiry is developed. We would end LTE lessons by asking pupils in their groups to decide: “Which contribution(s) helped you to understand the text best today and why?”

I’ll always recall when modelling a lesson, asking a Year 2 class in Rochdale the same question and a number of the pupils identifying a particular girl’s responses to the text as being helpful. The girl in question looked delighted with the feedback. At the end of the lesson I asked the class teacher her thoughts on the lesson she has observed. The teacher focused on the girl and explained she had very low self-esteem and had never seen her so buoyed at the end of a lesson. The power of pupil testimonies lies in their authenticity and the ease with which the intent can be understood. Removing praise from LTE developed pupil efficacy, led to greater critical evaluation and placed pupils closer to the text; they no longer sought praise as a means to an end but grew in confidence willing to share their thoughts.

As Alfie Kohn explains:

“Value judgments aside, though, praise has very real and unfortunate effects — again, just like other types of rewards. … The effect of a “Good job!” is to devalue the activity itself — reading, drawing, helping — which comes to be seen as a mere means to an end, the end being to receive that expression of approval. If approval isn’t forthcoming next time, the desire to read, draw, or help is likely to diminish. Praise isn’t feedback (which is purely informational); it’s a judgment — and positive judgments are ultimately no more constructive than negative ones.”

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