How do you react when you hear expressions like “well done”, “another A grade”, “aren’t you clever” and “great work”?
Maybe you use them yourself with your children in the belief that it will encourage them to work hard and do well.
It turns out that praise like this is not helpful and can actually damage children. Stanford University researcher Carol Dweck has shown that generalised praise of this kind can all too easily create learners who have what she calls a “fixed mindset”.
These children are afraid to make mistakes, unlikely to put in the necessary effort and, most importantly, unwilling to really practise because they have a fixed view of how smart they are.
When you label a child as “clever” you are not helping them. For smart kids can all too easily think that effort is something that only those who are less clever have to put in to achieve results.
Instead we need to be specific with our praise and focus on how the outcome was achieved:
I really noticed how much effort you put into selecting interesting vocabulary in your opening paragraph. Well done!
Or we might want more explicitly to connect the effort and the result in the child’s mind by asking:
Tell me how you organised your practice so that you managed to play that piece so beautifully.
How to give effective feedback
Praise which helps children see that success is a function of effort or practice or certain learning strategies develop a “growth mindset.” With this mindset, children believe their intelligence can increase through hard work and they value learning over performance.
Why does that matter? Young people with this mindset outperform their peers on tests and examinations, as well as develop vital capabilities like persistence. In short they become better learners.
In the same spirit, when children tell us that they can’t do something we need to firmly rephrase their pessimism by suggesting they can’t yet do it.
As parents and teachers it is helpful if we present learning as an activity which almost always involves a level of struggle to achieve mastery.
At dinner time, this could be an opportunity for parents to share something which they are struggling to learn in their work. Or a teacher might take the opportunity to praise a group of students for sticking with a tricky maths problem rather than giving up.
The teacher might also encourage them to share the methods they used with the rest of the class.
She or he might also encourage students to share their essay drafts or design prototypes so that everyone gets the message that successful learners review, reflect and improve everything that they do.
By explicitly modelling learning as a process which requires effort and strategy, students begin to see that discretionary effort is the key to success in life and in examinations or tests.
Feedback consistency between parents and teachers
How we praise children for their achievements is crucially important in shaping the ways in which children see themselves. And since teachers and parents or carers are the most influential adults in children’s lives, the importance of good home-school communication is vitally important in engaging parents.
Australia has taken a huge step forward by releasing a new tool to help parents and teachers take a consistent, supportive approach to developing family-school partnerships.
This is a significant milestone in guiding how parents and teachers can have authentic conversations with students about complex issues and provide structured support for learning.
As schools in Victoria implement the new focus on developing ways to assess what is often unhelpfully labelled as “soft skills” – such as solving problems in a group, coming up with good ideas, and changing your mind in the light of new evidence – the way teachers praise students will help to determine whether we see the kind of growth in resilience which politicians have laid down as a target.
It will also impact on the way young people develop critical and creative thinking skills such as higher-order questioning, reasoning skills and meta-cognitive processes.
If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort and keep on learning.
The same applies equally to teachers. Together they can help to develop the capable young Australians all parents and all teachers want to see.
Bill Lucas does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.