Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Good News Re: Self-of-Steam?

Maybe if this catches on, we'll be able to close down the blog in a decade or so.  Or maybe not, since the trophies-for-all generation will still be working its way through the professorial (and, Lord help us, administrative) ranks.  I also suspect the psychologists and neuroscientists among us will be kept busy correcting some, er, over-simplified ideas about brain development.  All the same, it strikes me as good news. 

In schools, self-esteem boosting is losing favor to rigor, finer-tuned praise

Michael Alison Chandler, The Washington Post, Jan. 15, 2012

For decades, the prevailing wisdom in education was that high self-esteem would lead to high achievement. The theory led to an avalanche of daily affirmations, awards ceremonies and attendance certificates — but few, if any, academic gains.

Now, an increasing number of teachers are weaning themselves from what some call empty praise. Drawing on psychology and brain research, these educators aim to articulate a more precise, and scientific, vocabulary for praise that will push children to work through mistakes and take on more challenging assignments. . . .

A growing body of research over three decades shows that easy, unearned praise does not help students but instead interferes with significant learning opportunities. As schools ratchet up academic standards for all students, new buzzwords are “persistence,” “risk-taking” and “resilience” — each implying more sweat and strain than fuzzy, warm feelings.

“We used to think we could hand children self-esteem on a platter,” Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck said. “That has backfired.”

Dweck’s studies, embraced in Montgomery schools and elsewhere, have found that praising children for intelligence — “You’re so clever!” — also backfires. In study after study, children rewarded for being smart become more likely to shy away from hard assignments that might tarnish their star reputations.

But children praised for trying hard or taking risks tend to enjoy challenges and find greater success. 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.

Full story here.  


  1. Well I sure hope that THAT idea gets some traction. But yep, it's going to take a while to undo the damage that's been done during this era of everyone's a super-duper-mega-star.

  2. I remember hearing this in the mid 90's before I had kids. I've always couched my affirmations with, "You worked really hard at that," and "All your efforts are paying off," rather than "You sure are smart!" I think it's working because neither of my kids shy away from challenging tasks and usually take on extra work or go above and beyond- almost to the point where I think, "Hey, slow it down some. Your poster for history doesn't have to light up and be animatronic; you're only in fourth grade. There's time for that later." And no- the spouse and I don't push the over-the-top stuff; we "help" as little as possible.

  3. I've always couched my affirmations with, "You worked really hard at that," and "All your efforts are paying off," rather than "You sure are smart!"

    I really like the addition of "All your efforts are paying off" because I think it's a way to avoid the possible "I deserve a good mark because I worked so hard" attitude later on, by showing that effort is only half the requirement--demonstration of understanding is the other part (at least when you get to post-secondary).

  4. I really hope that this is the case... I'm at the older end of the trophies for everyone generation... In middle school I was forced to read every coming of age novel in existence, but not taught the five paragraph essay. It's always been a mess.

  5. It's about time. Why was all of this not screamingly obvious in, oh, 1970?

    1. I certainly do hope that this catches on. Even if it does, though, I wouldn't count on having to close down the blog anytime soon. Other problems to solve include how to get tenure-track jobs for all the deserving adjuncts, how to control college costs, and how to achieve work-life balance for faculty. We might then move on to solve the problems we worried about 20 years ago, such as how to balance research and teaching, and how best to teach our students.

    2. The admin at Tuk U solved all those problems....
      1) Teachers aren't deserving, only researchers
      2) Raise tuition, increase class size, give as little as possible in return.
      3) Repeat after me: Work IS life.
      4) See #1
      5) Take their tuition, and keep em entertained.

      I see a bright future for the misery.

    3. Ra/oG, until Tuk U changes the wording of most departmental-level T&P documents, (1) is going to stay that way ... my departmental-level T&P document [and this is faculty association approved, mind you, not the machinations of the admin...] certainly entrenches (1). And I took way more pride in being a great teacher rather than a great researcher, so I nearly didn't make the grade for staying at Tuk U when my T&P came up...

  6. I myself prefer effective praise, tell someone what they did well, how they did it, and how it will benefit them if they do it again. It is behaviorally specific and promotes the reoccurance of desirable behavior.

  7. I cannot remember receiving praise at school a single time, back in the ole' country, from first grade on. It would have felt insulting. We were assumed to have it right, so praise would have felt as being patronized. Being wrong however, received abundant and scathing comment. This created a productive hate-hate relationship with the teacher.
    Emphasis on praise is very specific of American culture. As the Japanese game-show host says in a Simpsons episode: "Our game shows are a little different from yours. Your shows reward knowledge. We punish ignorance."
    I have to explain this to my students the first day of class. Sorry if I forget to praise you. I just don't have it in my DNA.

    1. My high school French teacher was like that. Most of my confreres thought he was an arrogant jerk, but once you got used to it, hate/hate turned into a mutual if grudging respect.

    2. Being from the old country myself and growing up with its traditions, I never understood the obsession with heaping praise on students for doing what they were supposed to do in the first place.

      My students often didn't like my pointing out what they did wrong. The place I taught at claimed that it prepared them for the real world. In the workplace, an error could result in someone losing their job, while doing something right rarely results in gold stars being awarded. Somehow, my students couldn't grasp that.

  8. I simply can't fathom why students have taken this all to heart in the first place.

    We got this crap when I was a kid and anything that a teacher praised was INSTANTLY jumped on as something to make fun of you for. It is possible I grew up in a school with more bullies than usual (two of the worst killed a girl our senior year, it has been conjectured that they are sociopaths, and they are still in prison--they led the pack), but even so....

    Teacher likes that paper you wrote in fourth grade? By afternoon some other student would have stolen it and destroyed it.

    Teacher says you're good at math? Everyone else makes fun of you for being a nerd.

    Teacher says you're a good artist? That picture hanging on the board is now vandalized as soon as the teacher is out of the room.

    In short, it didn't matter who was praised, somebody else took them down a peg or eight. Now? Well, yes. Students are probably less violent and rude (good thing) but why do they react so differently?

    1. It seems that student egos became extremely fragile after I finished high school nearly 40 years ago. Back then, if a teacher marked something wrong, I took that as a personal challenge and proceeded to roll up my sleeves and master that deficiency. They must have done something right as I went on to get 2 master's degrees and a Ph. D. in two different engineering disciplines.

      However, that seems to have changed within the nearly 20 years between my graduating from high school and my starting my teaching job. One day, the department head at the time conducted an in-class observation. I referred to an equation as "ghastly" because it had a lot of exponents in it. Afterwards, he admonished me for describing it in that way because, according to him, "ghastly" had negative connotations and the students, therefore, wouldn't want to learn the material.

      Go figure.

  9. Let's see, if I've ascertained correctly, you graduated from high school in about 1972, and started teaching in about 1992, right? You observations make sense in this context, and also in the context of demographic and societal trends.

    The self-esteem movement started in schools such as Summerhill as one of the funny ideas the 1960s, although similar ideas had been pioneered by John Dewey in the 1920s, and by others as early as the 1890s. George Carlin observed that emphasis on self-esteem in American schools began around 1970: it became noticeable to me in 1984, right around when "Baby on Board" signs started appearing in vehicles nationwide.

    In the mid-to-late '80s, college enrollments declined because of the drop in the birth rate after 1964, as the Baby Boom gave way to Gen X. This coincided with university administrators starting to insist that students were customers, and pressuring academics in so many ways to ease academic standards ever since. This led to a pervasive feeling among college instructors that the lunatics had taken over the asylum, described in “Generation X Goes to College,” by Peter Sachs in 1996.

    One might say this feeling was in the air during the student demonstrations of the 1960s. During this period was the advent at American universities of anonymous student evaluations of teaching, the rise of grade inflation as a by-product of draft deferments for college students during the Vietnam conflict, and the abandonment of in loco parentis by nearly all American universities, which meant that students could run amok and faculty could get into trouble if they said anything about it.

    A television was standard equipment in nearly every American home by 1960. Personal computers and video games became common in the '80s. The Internet became common in homes throughout the '90s, referred to as the World Wide Web with the advent of graphical web browsers in about 1995. Student literacy declined and consumerism was rampant throughout all of this.

    So no, I don't think what you report is surprising, appalled as I am by all of it. However, from what you’ve described, the department in which you worked was particularly poorly run. I just had a busy day of shouting and standing my ground, since I’m now Chair of the Department of Physics again. These little weasels try to wriggle and cheat their way out of absolutely everything, largely because they’ve been told they’re special and that they can do anything they want over and over and over again, every day of their miserable, stupid lives. Many of them very sincerely believe it!

    1. I noticed much of what you described while I was in high school, though I wasn't aware of what it all meant.

      I got my B. Sc. in the late '70s and went back for grad studies about 2 years later. Even then, while I was a TA, I encountered whiny undergrads who thought they were entitled to high marks for doing next to nothing. A few years earlier, I was an undergrad myself and their behaviour wouldn't have been tolerated by my classmates or my profs. Back then, I attributed it to calculators having been allowed into high schools shortly after I finished Grade 12 and how it may have led to students being less disciplined in their work. (By comparison, when I was in high school, we were required to think our way through our calculations using only slide rules and log and/or trig tables. Yup! I'm *that* old!)

      It wasn't until the end of the 1980s that I first heard about self-esteem and I was in for a big fat surprise when I started teaching. The incessant whining caught me by surprise and that was one headache I always had for the rest of my time as an instructor.

      My first department head was old school and he took it all in stride when I told him about it. Then again, he served in WW II, so whiny students didn't appear to bother him in the least.

      He soon retired and his successor (the one who took umbrage at my use of the word "ghastly") was one of those who not only insisted that the students had to be handled like delicate porcelain but he also felt that they all deserved to pass. Part of that was because he desperately wanted to be promoted to dean or even higher, so pacifying the students was a way of maintaining an suitable, unsullied image.

      Unfortunately, while he was in charge, I was frequently pressured to lower standards and dilute content to the level of a colouring book to keep our "customer" happy and maintain graduation rates. A number of my colleagues did the same and were enormously popular with the students because they gave out high grades like candy. That, sadly, led to a lot of friction and personal stress.

      Eventually, that nonsense was one of the reasons I finally quit nearly 10 years ago.

      By the way, I first heard about Summerhill and A. S. Neill's educational philosophy while I was in Grade 12 and we had a debate about it in one of our classes. During my freshman year, I roomed with an education major and he was quite taken by those concepts. The last I heard, my ex-roommate is now a high school counsellor in another city in my part of the country. That might explain why some of my students were such self-entitled whiners.

    2. Seeing as digital electronic calculators were first marketed during Christmas of 1972, it's gratifying to see that my calculations were nearly correct.

      I was the last kid in my high school to be given a calculator, for Christmas of 1974. My parents had many fine qualities, but being up-to-date wasn't one of them. My Mom, a product of the Depression, was highly skeptical of trusting a 15-year-old with an $80 piece of equipment!

      One thing that continues to astonish me in education is how unscientific it is. Educational professionals aren't merely overly congenial to new teaching techniques: they have the nasty habit of adopting whatever they think sounds good seemingly at the drop of a hat, and then with no apparent thought or effort to find out whether anyone has shown it to be effective, imposing it on large numbers of students. Then the students take a test, and when they don't do so well on the test, the ensuing outcry is that there must be something wrong with the test. I've seen this precise pattern so many times: New Math. Teaching machines. Programmed instruction. Whole Language. Educational television. Self-esteem. Process writing. Writing about "feelings." Peer Instruction, also called Active Learning, also called Learner-Centered Teaching. Excuse me, but I now have to hurl.

  10. Yeah, I dunno. By 1970 I was in preschool, I went to college in the mid-1980s, so I'd be both an X-er and at the beginning of the "self-of-steam" generation. Yet I have very few memories of being a "winner" no matter what I did. I do remember being called "smart," which was kind of toxic. But I also remember all kinds of contests, class rankings, etc. What I sucked at, I sucked at.

    One place I think the "self-of-steam" movement may have done some good is athletics. Because I sucked, I skipped out on PE as often as I could, and thus grew up to be kind of a slug. There was no such thing as a mediocre girl athlete. You justified your athleticism by being really, really good. I like that sports are now for all kids, specifically all girls, regardless of ability, because it plants the seeds for future physical activity.


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