Effective praise in the classroom

Dave Darwent, a teacher-educator at the Sheffield Institute of Education, looks at the “deficit model of praise”: to praise or not to praise?

I spent most of my compulsory education feeling crushed. I never felt my teachers were being vindictive, nor that they were singling me out. In fact my teachers were doing nothing different from my parents. Looking back as a teacher-educator with more than twenty years' experience, I realise that generations of learners, of all ages, are experiencing this very same feeling.

"What's the point of telling you that you have done something right? If I have not told you that it's wrong, then it's obvious it's right." My mother made this statement to me during a heated debate a couple of years ago. We were talking about how we could make learners feel that their efforts are valued. My mother, and all of my teachers from 1975 to 1986, clearly operated on the same principle – which I have now come to term as 'the deficit model of praise'.

In school I can only ever recall my teachers telling any of the classes how to 'do better next time', not how well we had done this time. Creativity was not encouraged – only the pursuit of the 'right' answer. In my secondary school we had a merit points system, but I can't remember anyone being awarded a merit; however, 'minus merits' for poor work or poor conduct were regularly given out, usually in multiples of five.


What's the right answer anyway?

In subjects such as mathematics many learners were ridiculed for giving 'wrong' answers, but no attempt was made to establish how the answer had been obtained. As a mathematics teacher I have never once told a learner that their answer was 'wrong', but I often said things like, "That's an interesting result, tell us how you got that". As an IT lecturer years later I never rejected unexpected outcomes, but always asked learners to give a rationale for what they had achieved.

When I took up a Deputy Directorship at a sixth-form college I was called in by the Principal only a few months into the job. He wanted to show me a letter – it was from two of my students. I took a deep breath before opening it up, but thankfully there was nothing to be worried about. They were simply writing to thank him for employing me, stating that never before had any teacher praised them nor given them credit for ingenuity or exploration. They claimed it was my feedback that caused them to apply to university - the first in their families ever to do so - and they still regularly update me on their career progression.


Why teachers are fearful of taking risks

That letter made me think about the role of praise within teaching. As a result, I now start one of my sessions each year by showing the video for Pink Floyd's Another Brick In The Wall (Pt 2). We watch how the learner is ridiculed and humiliated by the teacher for being creative, and we end the same session with the episode of The Simpsons called "Lisa's Substitute" (series 2, episode 19) in which the supply teacher makes a point of finding a reason to praise every learner in the class. It’s also worth noting Sir Ken Robinson's TED talk "changing educational paradigms" where he talks about repeated testing; how learners establish that there is one correct answer which is at the back of the book, but of course they are expected not to look.

There is a theme here, and it is that learners are trained, from the earliest age, to expect there will always be one 'correct' answer and that nothing else is any use. This is exacerbated by league tables and the perpetual demand to get higher and higher grades (by giving the 'correct' answers). In doing so, ingenuity, risk-taking, creativity, experimentation and exploration are brushed aside.

And then we wonder why teachers themselves are fearful of taking risks or being innovative. The obvious issue is the demand that all teachers are 'outstanding'. In fact the vast majority of my trainee teachers believe that to be graded 'outstanding' they must be seen to be teaching in a silent, traditional, classroom, with all learners sat in rows, diligently writing away. Essentially, they are frightened to be seen delivering a practical session. In the book From Exam Factories to Communities of Discovery: The Democratic Route (Coffield & Williamson, 2012) it states that for at least the last 30 years teachers have only ever been 'put down' – criticised and chastised – by Governments, OfSTED, managers and parents, with no recognition of doing anything well at all. Is there any wonder that the deficit model of praise prevails?

Dave Darwent is a teacher-educator at the Sheffield Institute of Education, Sheffield Hallam University and has more than 20 years’ experience. He is due to take up a new role as an e-learning specialist and is currently engaged in research into how well prepared teachers are to give meaningful and appropriate praise within feedback. View Dave’s LinkedIn profile here.