When do we praise performance?

As a teacher and researcher of feedback, I’ve long been fascinated by the popular discourse about feedback to children. The alleged praise-happy softness of American parents has been a target of scorn by George Will, the bow-tied conservative columnist, and held up as a competitive weakness relative to the super-achieving progeny of Chinese “Tiger Moms” [Will2010ses; Chua2011wcm]. Interestingly, research indicates that there are both “perils and promises of praise” [Dweck2007ppp]. That is, the type of praise one gives is critically important: does it reinforce a belief that intelligence is a fixed trait and not susceptible to improvement, or that improvements can be had with further effort.

This insight is based on work from psychologist Carol Dweck and colleagues, and more recently popularized in the 2009 best-seller NurtureShock [BronsonMerryman2009nsn]. In one experiment by Mueller and Dweck, of those fifth-graders who were praised for their intelligence, 69% reported they preferred tasks that “weren’t too hard” and “pretty easy” such they continue to show “they were smart”, compared to 12% of children praised for their effort. Conversely, 80% of the children praised for their hard work preferred learning goals: “problems that I’ll learn a lot from, even if I won’t look so smart”. Through a series of subsequent experiments that varied the difficulty of tasks and opportunities afforded to students, they found that those students praised for intelligence cared more about performing well than learning: they chose easier tasks, displayed less persistence, resilience, and enjoyment, and actually did (significantly) worse on subsequent tasks than the children praised for effort. Children that were praised for their intelligence also preferred learning about the performance of other children rather than learning new strategies, and were more likely to lie to (distant and anonymous) children about their own performance [MuellerDweck1998pic].

While my own time as a fifth grader preceded this research, I do recall report cards with both performance and effort grades. I remember being disdainful of the system when I got an “A” for performance but a “C” for effort – “stupid teacher” I thought. However, (hypocritically) I did cling to the “A” in effort when I had to explain the “C” in performance to my parents. Yet, by the time students come to my classroom, this bifurcated grading system is a distant memory. And, while I do recognize and encourage effort in feedback (formative assessment), I feel the final grade ought to be based on performance (summative assessment). I stress that a grade is not a reflection of students’ personality, efforts, or life circumstances. Yet, as one colleague described it, students are increasingly “brittle.” Is this because my students have always succeeded previously, and hence are operating under an innate-intelligence model? Or, could it be that they have been assessed on effort, and hence a less-than-exemplary assessment is viewed as a critique of their efforts? Hence, at what age – between primary school and professional work – do we draw the line between, or at least balance, the praising of effort, so as to further progress, and assessing performance?

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