The problem with praise

I have recently become interested in the concept of Growth Mindset which has been most notably explored in depth by Carol Dweck, and which has become part of the everyday pedagogical approach in many British primary schools.

One aspect of the Growth Mindset ideology is questioning the use of praise in the classroom: how we use it, when we use it, the language we use to give it and the impact it has on different children. Adopting a growth mindset involves giving thought to the ways in which we praise our pupils. For example, could over-praising lead to complacency? Are our pupils over-dependent on external praise rather than skilled at recognising achievement or progress for themselves? And if so, how might this affect them in later life?

As a trainee teacher I remember being told I gave praise too frequently and too readily, and as a mentor-observer more recently in my career I have often given feedback about too little praise being given. So what is the ‘right’ amount? Conscious praising over automatic praising may be a good starting point. Undoubtedly the value of praise both given and received is subjective and is variable depending on who is giving or receiving it.

Having a growth mindset is also about focusing on a learning journey rather than simply its destination, that’s to say the mistakes made and learnt from in order to progress, the perseverance and resilience needed to move forward with something difficult and the time and effort put into work before achieving something one can be proud of. However how often do we praise this kind of thing? 10/10 in a vocab test is ‘good’ but not if the pupil found it incredibly easy. 7/10 is good if the pupil worked on the words for hours, used a number of different strategies and did the best they could. It is almost impossible to accurately judge how much effort a child puts into something, and yet this is often another basis for the praise we give (not to mention the grading in PRs). Furthermore, what do we mean by ‘effort’ and how good are we at even recognising it? Does it mean the amount of time spent on something?  The progress made? Having got the answers right? Perseverance against obstacles? Something that may seem (or be presented as) effortless may well not be; indeed pupils in my experience rarely admit when they have worked hard on something, almost as if they are ashamed to admit that they needed to. However, is this kind of attitude the one we want to nurture? Surely we should encourage our pupils to value the learning journey and take pride in the practice, grit and determination needed to produce something really good?

In the Growth Mindset pocketbook (Hymer and Gershon, 2014) it is argued that over-praising locates the purpose of learning  as pleasing someone else, inspires a fear of future failure and invites complacency. Instead the authors argue that teacher should concentrate more on the feedback they give and encourage pupils to appreciate this.

“As a teacher, you’re giving and receiving feedback throughout the day. Because it’s omnipresent, it’s not surprising that feedback plays a major role in creating, maintaining and changing mindsets.” (Hymer and Gershon, 2014)

So… what should we do?

Personally I would like to capitalise on the great work being done in many of our feeder primary schools to nurture a growth mindset in our younger pupils. Without labelling it as such, I have decided to reward (praise) risk-taking, perseverance and learning from mistakes to progress with my first form French set (1W) over traditional markers success. Obviously this can only be based on what I see in lesson time, but I have started to award a medal each week to a pupil who has displayed these qualities in my subject. I am also trying to ‘notice’ how and when I praise more and to refrain from casual over-praising. Instead I am going to concentrate on feedback and asking the pupils themselves whether they feel proud of their work and why, therefore separating the purpose of learning from pleasing someone else.


JAS, September 2018


Further reading:

Dweck, Carol S., Mindset: How We Can Fulfil Our Potential, Robinson, 2012

Hymer, B. and Gershon, M, Growth Mindset Pocketbook, Teacher’s Pocketbooks, 2014

Robins, G., Praise, Motivation and the Child, Routledge, 2012

Syed, Matthew, Bounce – The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice, Fourth Estate, 2011

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