There are multiple ways to motivate students to learn and feel valued. Praise is one such way and when done correctly is an important aspect of a teacher’s toolkit. Given the importance of praise, in terms of teacher/student relationships, I am often surprised by the lack of distinct conversation teachers have around it. This blog explores different methods of praise and considers the effect of it in the classroom and how senior members of staff are instructing their staff to praise. This blog explores what praise looks like in the classroom and ways it can be effective for teachers.
EdD Student and Teacher of School English
“There are no two words more harmful in the English language than good job”. So mutters Terrence Fletcher, a fictional conductor at a prestigious music school in the U.S.A. Terrence is played by the charismatic J K Simmons in the 2014 film ‘Whiplash’. Fletcher’s remarks serve as a cautionary tale on praising his students too much or more importantly, too insincerely.
A question I have often pondered as a teacher is: why do students, particularly children, persevere to learn? When considering this I mean not because of mandatory reasons (they have to attend school) but instead what are the reasons they are still motivated to learn, despite having to be at school. As I have grown up, I have reflected on those golden moments when the teacher would read aloud my work to the rest of the class. I would be fooling you if I didn’t admit to the buzz I felt at being ‘king of the class’ while my creative writing piece ‘Aliens in Solihull’ was being read half-heartedly by my teacher. Was I so happy that I was temporarily seen as better than my peers or delighted that the teacher was saying to me, “I value you and you have potential?”.
Then I connected the dots to the feeling of acknowledgement and praise that I received at school more generally. Beyond this one isolated moment, I remembered how incidents of praise pushed me on to do well in my studies and apply myself as much as possible because I felt validated by the teacher.
What is interesting is considerations on the other side of the fence, such as: how should teachers and educators promote positive reinforcement or praise in an equal, definitive and measurable way? I mean how many ‘Aliens in Solihull’ can we read out to the class whilst getting through a dense curriculum in a short amount of time? I wondered if this is a nuanced case of teacher agency and autonomy in regards to what they want their classroom to look like or if this can be prescribed and encouraged to achieve consistency across the school as a whole. How can the balance of warm praise and strict guidelines be maintained in a consistent way across an institution?
Ratios of praise
According to the Vanderbilt University’s study on praise [Vanderbilt University. 2016] in schools in America, there is an ideal ratio of praise which they advise is 4:1 (positive statements: reprimands). They view this as the gold standard in creating a warm classroom environment in terms of praise. This feeds into a wider consideration of institutions and how measurable some aspects of teaching practice have become.
Generally S.L.T (the senior leadership team), would feel much more comfortable knowing that their teachers are praising a certain amount and I have heard this idea of ratio of praise reinforced by S.L.T members during C.P.D (continuing professional development-training for teachers) sessions as a barometer for consistency which they are understandably keen to promote. In theory, this allows the opportunity for teachers to ensure a balance of praise to reprimands, which is important for a positive classroom climate. The climate relates to the atmosphere in the room that is established by the teacher. Praise plays an integral part in teachers designing a classroom climate where learners feel valued and motivated to learn. In practical application, ratios of praise often mean that false incidents of praise alter the climate or dynamic relationships between students and their teacher, according to writers such as Borich [Borich, G. 2015]. This undermines the trust between teacher and student in terms of feedback and incidents of praise.
Behaviour Specific Praise (B.S.P)
If ratios of praise are not the answer another effective form of praise that is citied by education academics such as Robbins [Robbins, G. 2012] is B.S.P (behaviour specific praise). This idea is based around praising in a reactionary way when situations of praise or reprimand should arise. The phrases used are often specific to the teacher/student and occur when the teacher sees fit. The approach hands over a degree of autonomy to the teacher in designing their classroom climate how they see fit. This can be advantageous as teachers are not inducing forced praise as mentioned with ratios of praise and for students who are likely to recognise genuine praise.
The drawback to this method is that it can become subjective and the amounts of praise incidents have been shown to decrease according to the previously mentioned study by Vanderbilt University. Quite frankly, when you are teaching your sixth lesson of the day and it is your worst class on a wet and windy Wednesday afternoon, the motivation for teachers to praise can understandably wane. This is why ratios of praise have a part to play in classroom ecology and consistency in schools.
Whilst definitive answers are not always universally acceptable for considerations around how to praise, ultimately secondary research and my own experiences would suggest having a varied balance of B.S.P and loosely following a set ratio of praise is important in maintaining an appropriate balance of praise to reprimand. Ultimately this is down to the teacher. At the start of this piece I quoted Terrence Fletcher and I included this as a reminder of how damaging formulaic or insincere praise can be. Whilst this is a contested consideration, using phrases such as ‘good job’ are redundant in as much as they lack credible detail and of course a pursuit for more from the student. ‘Good job’ can be seen as a token gesture, that is immediately recognisable as such. What happens if a student actually does a tremendously ‘good job’? Praise becomes a formality when done too much and insincerity is determinantal to students like me who seek approval from their teachers.
My readings around praise and also first-hand experience as a teacher and of course as author of ‘Aliens in Solihull’, suggests praise is most effective when it demands more from a student, instead of it being about how good you are, it is about how great you can be with the right support and more importantly the will and determination to continue. This links into ideas such as medal and mission, where a student receives a medal (metaphorically) for doing something correctly but also a mission to take something to the next level and improve. Excellence is a habit that should be reinforced and recognised but most importantly consciously encouraged through the use of praise from the teacher. Well done!