On praise

6 min read

Voice of the Educator

Over the next few months, Robert Ahdoot, a high-school math teacher and founder of YayMath.org, will be sharing singular, bite-sized morsels of inspired education strategies. These aim to be juicy, yet easily digestible pieces of teaching wisdom. Enjoy.

For some educational and parental context, please first view this hilarious video on how the analysis of praise can get out of hand. It’s two minutes well spent. And now, my analysis.

On a daily basis, teachers grapple with what appear to be opposing forces. On one hand, we wish to praise student performance and offer them positive reinforcement, and on the other, we don’t want to over-condition them to seek external rewards for the timeless and sacred act of learning. Everywhere we turn, we hear anecdotes of younger generations being over-coddled, e.g. recreational sports leagues giving trophies to all participants, even if their team finished last.

Within our role as educators, we have a colossal opportunity to imbue our students with the precise formula necessary for self-driven success. Isn’t that what we’re really talking about? We want to raise these kids to grow up to be curious, self-starting problem solvers. But as many teachers will attest to, we see many students who are sluggish and non-inspired, who function primarily in sticks-and-carrots style environments. As in, “do the work and I’ll reward you with the points.”

I’m all for course structure, points, and all the major components which form the backdrop of a traditional class, i.e. homework, tests, quizzes, etc. (I also advocate for non-traditional classroom models as well.) Regardless of a class’s format, lurking behind our actual content is how we motivate our students to engage it. Whether you teach math, physical education, languages, the arts, or anything for that matter, the motivational practices we can leverage are applicable across all fields. And as we know, the use of praise is one of those practices. It actually may be the most important one.

Let’s return to the sluggish, non-motivated student. Tough shell to crack, isn’t it? Despite your enthusiasm, it appears next to impossible to instill intrinsic motivation within this individual. When I think of this image, my mind immediately goes to my first daughter, still in her toddler years, who recently learned to walk. Either in person or in compilations on YouTube, please tune into the face of a child who is learning to take his/her first steps. That look of focus and satisfaction is enough to make your heart soar. So the question is: what happens between that triumphant toddler and the sluggish adolescent who seems devoid of joy whilst learning? Of course, plenty happens. But here is something to think about.

I deeply believe that many well-intentioned parents over-celebrate the walking milestone. They may grab the child, lift her up, sing, dance, etc. but isn’t doing all that stuff making it about the parent? It is the child’s moment, is it not? Quite possibly such a parent is so filled with love and emotion that it becomes literally unbearable to sit through, so it must be released in some unilateral outward display. As such, we begin to undermine the notion of the child’s self-directed learning, and by extension, self-induced joy.

Please don’t think that I sat poker-faced while my baby took her first steps. On the contrary, I gave her what I believe to be the best feedback of all: mirroring. When she looked at me during those fleeting seconds, I was so tuned into her face and emotions that I looked and spoke back with a similar energy. In other words, I upheld the specific frequency she was on, sustained it, and strengthened it before ping-ponging it back to her. But the vital point is that I allowed the vast majority of her exhilaration to be self-induced and self-sustained by her.

Think of the tuned-in spotter in the weight room or on the gymnastics floor. This person can be super-positive, motivating, encouraging, etc. But to do the job right is not to be like that soft, pesky assistant coach on the team, who pours praise on the players for good plays or even for standard expectations like hustle. If children, teammates, or students have a personal desire to make their respective parents, coaches, and teachers proud, then mission accomplished. If kids wish to succeed only to avoid making mistakes, only to get the assignment points or another empty “atta boy”, or only to appease an over-bearing parent, then mission failed.

In class, I mirror on a constant basis. If a student gets a question right, I will say in a crisp yet neutral way, “correct, “ or simply affirm with a nod if we’re making eye contact. If he says, “that was really hard,” I’ll mirror that back, “for sure, I get how it can be challenging, because there are so many components to keep track of. Was there a specific point when you started to feel uncomfortable?” Or if he says, “that was kinda cool,” I’ll mirror back, “you know, I really think so too. I like how this part relates to that part… what exactly do you like about it?” If a student is being a stick-in-the-mud, time to call it out, “Johnny, you seem frustrated, or I could be wrong, is everything ok?”

This level of attunement is what separates the robots from the humans, and the role fillers from the role models. Instead of the understandable but automatic urge to praise with a “good job!” or the like, try pausing for a second and mirroring what the student feels in that moment. As human beings, we are all hard-wired to seek out and strive for accomplishments. Let’s find ways to set our students up for such accomplishments, and when they arrive there, let’s just stand back and marvel. Good job for reading this.

Robert Ahdoot is a high-school math teacher and founder of YayMath.org, a free online collection of math video lessons filmed live in his classroom, using costumes and characters. Robert has been teaching high-school math for 10 years, has given two TEDx talks, and travels to schools promoting his message of positive learning through human connection. He is the author of One-on-One 101, The Art of Inspired and Effective Individualized Instruction.

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