Don’t Overuse ‘Good Job!”

If you finish your homework, I’ll give you a candy bar.  But if you don’t finish your homework, you’ll get timeout.

If you be quiet, you’ll get five extra minutes of kickball.  But if you don’t zip it, you’ll lose those five minutes of recess.

 

Last post, I wrote about the ineffectiveness of traditional punishment in the form of in-school or out-of-school suspension.  On the other hand, we should all question how effective rewards–whether they be candy bars, money, or verbal praise–are for sustainable success and motivation, and I’ve revisited one of my most influential thinkers: Alfie Kohn.  Mr. Kohn’s article “Five Reasons to Stop Saying “Good Job!” provides compelling research about why providing students excessive praise could be detrimental to student academics and behavior. 

Kohn reminds us that this point isn’t to avoid making kids feel good about themselves, in case anybody thinks his notion is cold-hearted or off-base: “Lest there be any misunderstanding, the point here is not to call into question the importance of supporting and encouraging children, the need to love them and hug them and help them feel good about themselves.  Praise, however, is a different story entirely.”

My own anecdotal experience as a teacher strongly supports several of Mr. Kohn’s conclusions about the effects of too much empty verbal praise:

Praise Junkies–“Rather than bolstering a child’s self-esteem, praise may increase kids’ dependence on us,”  Kohn writes.  True.  I remember Steve, a student in 7th grade, who constantly wanted to hear if he was doing a “good job,” whether it be on a grammar worksheet, personal writing piece, or bellringer activity.  At the time, I gave in and usually acknowledged his neediness.  I didn’t give meaningful feedback about what he was doing, and the cycle continued until the end of the year.  Research supports the practice of giving specific feedback, rather than praise or criticism.

Losing interest–“In a troubling study conducted by Joan Grusec at the University of Toronto, young children who were frequently praised for displays of generosity tended to be slightly less generous on an everyday basis than other children were. Every time they had heard “Good sharing!” or “I’m so proud of you for helping,” they became a little less interested in sharing or helping,” Kohn writes.  In my experience, true.  I’ve had students–at the high school level–become conditioned in this manner, and they expect something in return if they volunteer to pass back papers or help a classmate out on makeup work.  We’re not helping students if they must wait for approval or expect praise to do the right thing.  I tell classes at the beginning of the year something along this lines:  your reward for doing the right–or good–thing should be enough in and of itself.

Reducing Achievement–“Why does this happen? Partly because the praise creates pressure to “keep up the good work” that gets in the way of doing so. Partly because their interest in what they’re doing may have declined. Partly because they become less likely to take risks – a prerequisite for creativity – once they start thinking about how to keep those positive comments coming,” Kohn writes.  Again, true.  I’ve found that my most creative, successful students aren’t craving grades or my praise–they are internally driven.  In my digital storytelling class, for example, telling a student “good job” is worthless due to the nuances and challenges in creating an original short documentary or audio slideshow.

I’ll admit that I’ve had to bribe some very difficult classes and, after trying all the tricks up my sleeve, it was the only way I could get them to stay quiet or complete an assignment.  It pained me to manipulate the classes in that manner, but I had to stay sane and keep the students somewhat productive.  Unfortunately, the students who could benefit most from a little internal fire are most likely to respond to dangling carrots, adding yet another obstacle to teaching at-risk kids.

School environments where students aren’t constantly seeking praise allow for creativity, curiosity, and failure.  If we fail to foster these outcomes and dispositions, then our kids will stay mired in classrooms and mindsets where academic success and motivation largely rests on adult verbal response to menial and outdated tasks.

I’m curious about your experiences in the adult workplace and as parents.  What motivates you to give great effort in your workplace, besides earning a paycheck?  What type of feedback from your bosses gives you satisfaction?  If you work with young people, or are a parent yourself, am I being idealistic about how to motivate children at home?  Have you found yourself in a cycle of carrots and sticks that fails–or succeeds–in changing behavior for the better?

 

11 thoughts on “Don’t Overuse ‘Good Job!”

  1. It is going to bite us sooner than later, the way that praise has made people more fearful of failure and therefor less likely to try new things. I see this fear of failure in the workforce all of the time. ‘Tell me exactly what to do, even though I am a knowledge worker & supposed to be capable of critical thinking…’

    • I expect it is not fear of failure but, rather, ignorance about how to succeed. When kids are told they are terrific when they clearly are not they lose sight of what honest praise for a job well done is. We have forgotten that honesty really is the best policy and we lie to the kids every day by telling them they have done a good job when what they did stinks. They need to be told when something is not up to standard so the next time they can try harder and do it right THEN tell them they did a “good job.” Eventually they will learn how to succeed. As it is now they think every thing they do is a success when it clearly is not.

    • I’ve seen this mindset you’re describing, and it’s often a byproduct of curriculums that are narrowly defined with little room for exploration and failure.
      If the teacher defines all outcomes to a T, then he or she will naturally praise a student for being on the right track. The problem is, the student’s autonomy is watered down big time…

  2. “Good job” still feels like a praise to me. But I agree, if overused it can lose its meaning. It’s always difficult to find the balance. I recently watched Dan Pink’s TED Talk on intrinsic motivation—highly recommended, by the way—and I also agree that “doing the right thing” or “doing the job well” should be a reward in itself. (Or in the case of Pink’s TED Talk, the satisfaction we get from doing something we like to do.)

    But the question then becomes: If we don’t praise our children or our colleagues at all, or often enough, will they still be motivated?

  3. I like Alfie Kohn. He always makes me think about day to day things in new ways. The director of my school loves Alfie Kohn, so much so, that awards are never given. It is strange. We praise things randomly rather than purposefully. And what is wrong with giving awards to students who are high achievers, kids who excel in sports, kids who show amazing skill in art, music, etc. I don’t think giving awards at semester/year end are making kids work because of an award. After all it is just a piece of paper. I want to work in a school where kids receive school wide praise for something.

    In the classroom “good job” just seems to mean you did it. But when I spend time commenting on what a child has done, I make sure I am specific with my praise. “This is excellent because you stated your thesis then…..”

    And I’m going to stick my neck out here on this one….I like that my job is not permanent. Knowing I can be let go if I do not do my duties, teach the proper curriculum, do creative things in my classroom, I may not be asked to return keeps me going. My principal and director often give praise. They relay what parents say about me. They come in and hang out in my classes. They stop by my office to check in. All of these things are huge motivators. I’m not saying I wasn’t a good teacher when I was protected by a union, or a tenured contract, I’m just saying…

    • Wow, he’s a true disciple if NO awards are given. Is that taking too harsh a stance? Do the kids long for more individual recognition?
      You bring up a good point about teacher motivation. I’m motivated more by the results I get in my classes, the smiles on student faces, lightbulbs going off in heads, etc. I’m protected by a strong teacher union, and I wonder how many of my colleagues use it as a crutch.

  4. I do not have kids nor do I teach children. But I loathe this epidemic of automatic false praise! It seems a kid can now sneeze or cough and be told “Good job!”

    I grew up in the late 1950s, early 1960s in Canada (a more British, stiff upper lip culture, plus being a Boomer with far fewer jobs available to us life-long) then I chose to enter and stay in journalism, a super-tough biz where managerial or collegial praise is very rare. I still treasure a hand-written attaboy note from the 1980s from a very demanding/smart newspaper boss, praising a front-page story I wrote. I also won a National Magazine Award, but did not even frame or hang it in my home for many years.

    I think praise is pleasant, but should be treated like ice cream — something to look forward to as an occasional treat, but hardly a daily nutritional requirement.

    How else to learn to rely on our own judgment, use intrinsic motivation and reduce the neediness you describe?

    • False praise could be one factor really holding back our struggling students. After all, students get passed along from grade to grade without really meeting any real academic standards, with plenty of adults along the way championing compliance or completion of work. Nice analogy with the ice cream.

      • Thanks.

        What a sad way to raise children. I recently lectured on freelancing to college students attending a NYT journalism workshop; several said I’d terrified or daunted them. I simply told them it demands a LOT of consistently excellent work. But if that is a new concept, I guess it would be terrifying indeed.

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