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?