Many studies have shown that when students are engaged in learning, there is little need to bribe students to complete their work. Using external motivators in the name of learning has many critics. There has been no more outspoken critic of grades and test scores than Alfie Kohn. His specific concerns around the use of praise to coax work out of students in the name of outcomes have been substantiated by a body of research, of which he often cites to support his arguments on his blog, www.alfiekohn.org.
For example, in his blog post “Criticizing (Common Criticisms of) Praise”, which was also published in his book Schooling Beyond Measure: Unorthodox Essays About Education (Heinemann, 2015), Kohn reinforces the notion that telling students they did a good job when they complete a task sets up an imbalance of power between student and teacher.
Praise is a verbal reward, often doled out in an effort to change someone’s behavior, typically someone with less power. Like other forms of reward (or punishment), it is a way of ‘doing to’, rather than ‘working with’ people (96).
In addition, when we deliver praise, we are actually taking autonomy of a student’s actions away from them and attributing their efforts to us. The result can be that students become conditioned to want the “attaboys” as a reward for their work, instead of focusing on why the work was successful in the first place.
The effect of a ‘Good job!’ is to devalue the activity itself – reading, drawing, helping – which comes to be seen as a mere means to an end, the end being to receive that expression of approval. If approval isn’t forthcoming next time, the desire to read, draw, or help is likely to diminish (97).
As educators, we too often default back to how we were taught in our classrooms and schools. I catch myself at times with words of praise instead of acknowledgement of their efforts with our students and my own children. It is a hard habit to break. However, this habit is worth changing. Our choices in language create the conditions in which students can or cannot become owners of their personal learning journeys.
Pathways Toward Student Agency
Peter Johnston, literacy education professor and author of Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives (Stenhouse, 2012), offers similar concerns regarding the use of praise in order to motivate learners. When students are rewarded for getting the right answer and completing the task just as the teacher asked, they start to associate success with what the adult deems worthy. They fail to internalize an understanding of good work within themselves.
In fact, if teachers repeatedly offer praise to students, they can reduce the impact of their instruction.
When children are fully engaged in an activity, if we praise them we can simply distract them from what they were doing and turn their attention to pleasing us (42).
So what is the counter to this culture? Johnston suggests agency, or the belief that things such as our intelligence and our life’s outcomes are changeable (27). Agency can be developed in students when teachers offer an environment for students which directs their attention to their own processes and thinking and how their efforts contributed to their success. This concept has been a focus of educational research for some time. Agency is closely related to more readily-known concepts such as “growth mindset”, a term coined by Carol Dweck. However we describe it, the idea is that the language we employ in classrooms has a direct impact on how well students take responsibility for their learning.
The assessment habits we develop as teachers can contribute to or detract from our students’ sense of success and independence. On a positive note, formative assessment strategies offer teachers specific approaches to address includes the clarity of goals and the offer of support through feedback and scaffolding that allows the teacher to eventually release the responsibility of the work to the student. These strategies are best employed in classroom environments that utilize responsive language, structures for collaboration, higher order questioning, and honest celebrations of student accomplishments. These actions can make student agency a reality.
This is an excerpt from my new eBook The Secrets of Self-Directed Learning. It is a free resource that offers readers four steps for helping students become more independent learners. You can download this resource by clicking here.