Sunday, March 23, 2014

On the Latent Effects of Student Praise

A few weeks ago I ran across an interesting infographic entitled "How to Raise a Genius" while scrolling through Pinterest and I thought I would share the message I took from it. 

The infographic was produced by OnlinePsychologyDegree.Net and the pin linked me back to a blog called Mama OT.

Here's the graphic: 

Genius Infographic

Now, maybe because I am a teacher and not yet a parent I looked past the implication that this graphic was created for individuals to apply while raising their own children and I immediately thought of it's application in the classroom. 

As I have mentioned in my blog before, my first year of teaching was spent with inner-city elementary students.  Many of these students came from families that spoke little to no English at home and most lacked the Norman Rockwell picturesque family dynamic.  That said, most of my second grade students were already considered "lower performing" because they were not as privileged to go home to environments where parents had the resources to limit television time, converse with the children in a way to nurture English language development, push their children to play an instrument or exercise, or even teach them patience.   What I did find, however, was that many of the parents were well aware that their current situations were not the standard formula  for "raising a genius."  So, as a teacher, I noticed that when a student, deemed by society to already to be "disadvantaged" and "low performing" performs well, it seems inherently obvious to praise him.  The parents praised him, administrators praised him, and yes, I praised him, too.  This is what makes the last portion of this infographic so profound - "don't tell them they're smart." 

Let's take a moment to talk about parent/teacher conferences.  When I read the phrase "don't tell them they're smart," this was the first scenario my brain jumped to.  Parent/teacher conferences are those few times a year where parents and teachers actually have the ability to come together and discuss the mutual work involved in educating a child.  That said, each party comes with expectations.  My experience here is two-fold; the first being a child that sat through my own conferences, and the second as a teacher leading conferences for my students.  As a child, I always felt that my parents wanted to leave a conference ultimately hearing that I was intelligent.  As a teacher, I feel that many parents come to conferences wanting verification of the intelligence that they already see in their child - who wouldn't? 

Now, to clarify, I am not condemning praise.  Praise, clearly is a beautiful concept that done correctly can nurture a child to success.  The reason I think the phrase "don't tell them they're smart" is so profound is the fact that parents and teachers must be careful about how we praise our children.  This brings me to my second thought - teachers - think about the number of times a student has given an answer to a question that has been wrong.  I will admit that when I first started teaching my general answer or response was "good," regardless of whether the student was correct of the answer truly was "good."  Why did I find myself doing this?  Because my experience as a student exposed me to the conventional norm that every student response warranted a response from the teacher, usually something "stock" such as the word "good."  Well, let's be honest.  Not every answer is "good" and it is better to be honest with the student than to falsely praise him or her.

After reading this information, my goal as an educator is to be more cognizant of the praise I give my students in order to teach my students (I now work with high schoolers) that hard work breeds intellectual gain.  Parents and fellow teachers, I urge you to do the same.  Let's watch the results together.