The problem with praise

23rd September 2013

Two stories from home

We have some film of Finn, our son, when he was a few months old. Claire and I are on our knees on the dining room floor, taking it in turns filming Finn as he makes his first tentative steps. Accompanying Finn’s unsteady movements are the sounds of laughter and joy, along with coos and chirps of encouragement. As Finn waddles towards the camera giggling, you can hear Claire and I saying things like, “Come on Finn… there you go… ooh, up you get.” Finally Finn finds his balance and takes a stumbling step forward, this is followed by another, and then another. The final one ends with him falling, laughing, into Claire’s arms. Both adults cheer: “Clever boy, clever Finn.”

Jump forward eleven years. Finn is now twelve and in his second year of High School, he is reading out-loud a piece of writing he has done for homework. The purpose of the writing is to create a police report from the book Holes. Finn’s writing is, as always, full of expression and detail, peppered with the odd metaphor. Towards the end he becomes less sure of the piece and when he finishes, he looks up with a quizzical look.
I ask him, “What do you think of it?”
“I thought it started well, but it went a bit wrong at the end.”
“Why do you think that was?”
Finn gives his considered answer and we talk for a while about how he might make some revisions.
“Anything else?” I ask.
He shakes his head.
“What was the purpose of the writing?” I ask.
“To write a police report.” He answers.
“Was that a police report?” I say.
He says he doesn’t know, he’s never read one. We talk for a bit more and I offer to find one for him to read.
I ask, “Do you think you would like to write it again?”
He says he would… After he’s played FIFA13 on the Xbox.

Praise under scrutiny

Praise is one of those strategies we usually consider to be an unquestioned good. In our training we are told to praise children, to make them feel good about themselves, and to motivate them to learn and behaviour better. Praise, we are told, is much better than criticism, much more effective and much less damaging to children’s self-esteem. These truisms are presented as facts, things we all know through common sense.

However, in recent years some writers and researchers have been challenging this ‘unquestioned truth’ and making some very unsettling assertions. Foremost among these is Alfie Kohn who attacks the whole strategy of rewards and punishments and has consequently attracted a great deal of flak. His book “Punished by Rewards” is a devastating assault on what he calls ‘pop behaviourism’ and how this theory, has over time, pervaded the whole education system with wrong-headed assumptions and strategies. Through 400 pages of meticulously referenced argument, Kohn examines the evidence and logic of behaviourism, coming to the conclusion that much modern research undermines its basic assumptions and claims.

Much of his argument is now well known and accepted wisdom in industry, as argued in the very readable “Drive”, however, one aspect of Kohn’s thesis is still extremely controversial; this is his assault on the use of praise.

Kohn attacks the use of praise on three fronts: the claim it enhances performance, the claim it promotes positive behaviour, and the claim it helps people feel good about themselves.

Against the claim praise enhances performance

It turns out the research evidence on the relationship between praise and achievement is very limited and the two studies that do exist are not supportive. One found: “Praise does not correlate with student achievement gains.” The other concluded: “Correlations between teacher rates of praise and student’s learning gains are not always positive.” [Kohn, p. 98]

Kohn gives four possible reasons for this:

  • “When someone is praised for succeeding at tasks that aren’t terribly difficult, he may take this to mean he isn’t very smart: this must be why someone has to praise him.”
  • “Telling someone how good she is can increase pressure and she feels she has to live up to the compliment. This pressure, in turn, can make her more self-conscious, a state that often interferes with performance.”
  • “Praise sets up unrealistic expectations of continued success, which leads people to avoid difficult tasks in order not to risk the possibility of failure. Praise encourages some children to become dependent on the evaluations offered by their teachers.”
  • “Praise, like other rewards, often undermines the intrinsic motivation that leads people to do their best.”

Against the claim it promotes positive behaviour

When I first started teaching and became a parent I believed, without reservation, that praise was an effective strategy for encouraging good behaviour. I certainly used it a lot in my classroom. Unfortunately, the research evidence is less conclusive. A study in 1991 [Kohn p.102] found that those children who were frequently praised by their mothers for displays of generosity tended to be slightly less generous than other children on an everyday basis.

Kohn maintains: “Praise is not more effective at building a healthy self-concept. We do not become confident about our abilities (or convinced we are good people) just because someone else says nice things to us… the effect of praise may once again be counterproductive rather than merely ineffective… the most notable aspect of a positive judgement is not that it is positive but that it is a judgement.”

This seems to me the key point to this part of Kohn’s argument. The evidence is, once again, inconclusive but pointing marginally towards praise being counterproductive. However, the reasoning behind not using praise is sound. Praise as a strategy to influence behaviour is the use of authority over another person: “Telling someone her work is good is every bit as much a value judgement as saying it is bad.” In my experience making a value judgement of the quality of someone’s work puts the emphasis on the judgment (good or bad) rather than on the work. This is something many of us have experienced when we get a mark and a comment with a piece of work, we concentrate more on the mark, than on the comment.

I’m not saying (although Kohn might be) that there is something morally wrong with making judgements. In fact, I would argue, we do it all the time and it would be difficult to imagine being a teacher without making judgements. However, it is important to be aware of the effects of the judgement on the other person, especially if our aim is to develop that person as a learner. Look at the effect observation judgements have had both on the morale of teachers and on their attitude to being observed

However, there is even worse news. The children we should really worry about are the ones that crave praise from adults: “Praise is a way of using and perpetuating children’s dependence on us… sustaining a dependence on our evaluations, our decisions… this leads to a dependency on approval.” [p.104]

Further, “not all children react the same way to praise…identical statements made by the same teacher under the same circumstances produce different results for different students… people’s various experiences… [and children’s reactions to praise] may also vary according to a child’s background and personality.”

Against the claim it helps people feel good about themselves

This, I believe, is the most disturbing of Kohn’s attacks. Who doesn’t like saying something nice about another person? Or hearing encouraging words? Surely he can’t be against compliments and being nice to each other, especially children? Well, frankly, he’s not. These are his own words:

“My reading of the evidence does not require us to stop smiling. It does not suggest that we ought to hold ourselves back from expressing enthusiasm about what other people have done. It does not imply that we should refrain from making positive comments. Apart from the fact that few of us are about to take such drastic steps regardless of what the data shows, my point is that there is no reason we should.” [P.106]

However, there are some serious aspects of this kind of praise we must keep in mind. He suggests two general principles:

  • Self determination – with every compliment we make we need to ask ourselves, is this helping that individual to feel a sense of control over his life. Or are we attempting to manipulate his behaviour by getting him to think about whether he has met our criteria.
  • Intrinsic motivation – are our comments creating the conditions for the person we are praising to become more deeply involved in what she is doing? Or are they turning the task into something she does to win our approval?

We must examine our own motives: First, are we trying to control someone’s behaviour for our own convenience; second, how do our comments sound to the individual who hears them; finally we need to attend to the objective characteristics of what we say and how we say it.

This I now think of as either insincere praise or a sincere compliment. If the intention of my comment is to manipulate the person’s behaviour for my convenience then it is insincere. However, if I can say without fear of contradiction that my comment was a genuine compliment, without manipulation, in a form that the person hearing it took as honest and heartfelt, then I think it is as sincere as it is possible to be.

I think the first story of Finn at the start of this blog illustrates this point. Our words of encouragement and praise were genuine and sincere. They were part of that whole happy experience, heartfelt and not manipulative. Would Finn have walked without them? Of course he would. Children have been learning to walk for hundreds of thousands of years and very many of them did it without a single word of support or encouragement. Did we praise him because we thought it would help? Maybe, but I don’t think we thought about it. I think the words were natural and spontaneous without the need for calculated reason.

The second story is quite different. Finn is now much older; the skill he is gradually learning to master is unnatural and quite difficult. It involves many hours of conscious practice, reflection, and evaluation. Praise and encouragement of the kind we gave him as a baby learning to walk would be entirely inappropriate. But does this mean we shouldn’t praise him at all? I would argue, yes, and for several reasons. The first is Finn wasn’t after praise, he didn’t ask for it and he wasn’t looking for it. What he wanted was feedback, information that he could use to get better. Although he was proud of what he had done, the motivation to do and then share his work was intrinsic: he was not after a reward. As a family we don’t use rewards at all, no stickers, treats, or even pocket money. The kids don’t expect them for what they do and they don’t ask for them.

Second, Finn had got the task wrong. However, sophisticated his use of language, however, elaborate his plot development etc. the truth was, it was the wrong genre. He’d written a story, when he should have written a report. What purpose would praise have played in pointing that out to him? “You’ve done a brilliant job Finn, but its wrong.”

Third, praising him, his work, or the effort (even though it was wrong) would have been a value judgment: my value judgment, my view of his work. What we want is for Finn to be able to make value judgments of his own work. If we keep doing it for him, then how easy is that? What will he learn other than that other people’s opinions of his work are more important than his own?

As I said earlier, none of this is easy and the water is very murky. Do we never compliment our children? Of course not. But, we should try as hard as we can to think about what we are saying and to keep praise to a minimum.

Kohn argues we should re-frame student’s failures (like Finn’s) as a problem to be solved, he makes four practical suggestions:

  • Don’t praise people, only what people do
  • Make praise as specific as possible
  • Avoid phony praise – a parent or teacher who is genuinely delighted by something a child has done should feel free to let that excitement show.
  • Praise becomes objectionable when it is clearly not a spontaneous expression but a deliberate strategy, a gimmick.
  • Avoid praise that sets up competition – “you’re the best in the class” etc.

Finally he reminds us, “when we contemplate the reality of emotionally impoverished families, or the effects of unrelenting criticism, let us keep in mind that the problem is not too little praise. It is too little encouragement and support.” [p.113]


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