Doubts about Dweck? The problem with praise

Back in 2010 I was introduced to Carol Dweck’s research into fixed and growth mindsets and the scales fell from my eyes. It was an epiphany. A veritable Damascene conversion. And like Saul before me, I quickly became an evangelist.

The basic theory is that folk with growth mindsets will make effort for its own sake and when they encounter setbacks will see them as opportunities for learning. Your fixed mindset is all about success. Failure at a task is seen as evidence of personal failure. Struggle is seen as evidence of lack of ability. This is particularly toxic as hard work is the only real route to mastery, and if hard work is seen as something only losers have to dirty theirs hands with, well, why would you bother?

All this seemed very reasonable and I could see the benefits to teaching students about these mindsets and how to move from fixed to growth. One of the key strategies for encouraging this move is to praise effort rather than ability. Dweck says, “when students were praised for effort, 90 percent of them wanted challenging new tasks they could learn from. ” This is pretty clear, isn’t it? She goes on to say that in contrast to ability praised students who gave up at tasks as they got difficult,  ‘The effort-praised students still loved the problems, and many of them said that the hard problems were the most fun.”

There it is in black and white: if you praise students’ effort it will increase their likelihood of persevering at challenging tasks.

So, like a goodun’ that’s what I’ve been training myself to do. I try to make sure my praise of students is always specific to the task they are engaged in and is focused on bigging them up for sticking with the hard stuff and mastering difficult concepts. And it seemed to be working (although it’s impossible to say for sure as having a control group seemed unethical!) Students seem to have genuinely moved from having a fixed view of their ability to accepting failure and difficulty as part of the normal cycle of learning. I have posters all round my room exhorting them to, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Imagine my surprise when I read this yesterday:

There is now increasing evidence for [the] dilution effect of praise on learning. Kessels, Warnet, Holle & Hannover (2008) provided students with feedback with and without praise; praise led to lower engagement and effort, Kamins and Dweck (1999) compared the effects of praising a person as a whole (for example, “You’re a clever girl”) with the effect of praising a person’s efforts (“You’re excellent in putting in the effort”). Both led to zero or negative effects on achievement. The effects of praise are particularly not when students succeed, but when they begin to fail or not to understand the lesson. Hyland and Hyland (2006) noted that almost half of teachers’ feedback was praise, and that premature and gratuitous praise confused students and discouraged revisions. Perhaps the most deleterious  effect of praise is that it supports learned helplessness: students come to depend on the presence of praise to be involved in their schoolwork. At best, praising effort has a neutral or no effect when students are successful, but is likely to be negative when students are not successful, because this leads to a more ‘helpless or hopeless’ reaction (Skipper & Douglas, 2011).

John Hattie, Visible Learning for Teachers p 121

Well. What are we to make of that?

Is it just me or do Dweck’s earlier research findings directly contradict the claims made in her 2006 book Mindset, the New Psychology of Success? It certainly looks that way, doesn’t it?

If anyone can cast a light on this troubling piece of information, I’d be glad to hear it.

Before anyone tells me otherwise, Hattie does allow that praise is important in making students feel like they ‘belong’ and for there to be a high level of trust between teachers and students. His point is that, “for feedback to be effective in the act of learning, praise dissipates the message.”

Related posts

How to fix your attitude
Feedback: it’s better to receive than to give
Deliberating about practice

15 Responses to Doubts about Dweck? The problem with praise

  1. It really is the quality of praise that counts in my experience. 5 star praise (stolen from Mind Gym):
    Context
    Explain what went well
    Describe the impact
    Reinforce their identity
    Congratulate
    Just praising effort or achievement is useless. We’re very good at doing these things when someone misbehaves, maybe we need to do it for praise too!

    • learningspy says:

      Lindsay
      Thanks for this – not come across 5 star praise before but it makes sense for the congratulations to come at the end of the process. But, and this is a big but, what happens when we’re not just confirming that all is preceding as expected – what about those times when we have to challenge thinking precisely because it’s not going well? Confirmation is much easier to act on than disconfirmation. I think the point is that if we follow the process you recommend then we will only end up confusing students.

      Thanks, David

  2. Bit of an English teacher problem – we don’t like saying something is wrong. Other subject teachers have no issue with this ( mfl / maths). If something isn’t working then don’t praise it -that’s why step 2 is so important. You have to be really clear about what specifically is/ isn’t good, not just leave them to work it out for themselves. Which skills they are using and what you want them to transfer/ develop.
    N.B. Re-reading my previous comment it is a unclear. I meant explain what didn’t work and sanction for points 2 and 5 when challenging negative behaviours.

  3. Thanks for your invitation to respond, David.

    When I first heard of Carol Dweck’s work, the word ‘praise’ was discordant for me. I work a lot in and with Nancy Kline’s ‘Thinking Environment’ (www.timetothink.com), where ‘appreciation’ is the preferred term.

    Your blog chimed with my sense of unease and I’ve spent the last day or so reflecting on why, for me, appreciation and praise mean different things – and that’s to do with equality.

    The act of giving and receiving appreciation assumes that both (or all) parties are essentially equals – as human beings, as thinkers. That doesn’t deny the power imbalance of the teacher/student relationship; the equality is connected to the person, not the role. In a Thinking Environment, appreciation is always given AND received in the same transaction – thus it becomes part of the culture of the learning environment.

    Praise, on the other hand, seems to be lacking that component of equality. Praise is usually by one party of another, with no reciprocity. Praise – in my view – contains and element of infantilisation and if it is shown to not always work in the intended way, that could be why.

    What do you think?

    Lou.

  4. Study Angel says:

    I’m looking at this from a parent’s perspective which is how I approach all my learning / reading materials.

    From my perspective, I wonder if it’s the case that it’s easy to fall into the trap of praising for the sake of praising so that children feel motivated and keen to learn. I wonder if parents and teachers alike are so attuned to the need to boost children’s self esteem that they’ve lost sight of the bigger picture which is that if a child has genuinely put in a huge effort which is peculiar to that individual child, then praise the effort. If, however, a child has made an effort but has potential for more then surely constructive criticism is better than praise. As adults we smirk at being ‘bigged up’ when we know the person’s being sycophantic and we then become over reliant on praise to validate our behaviour thus evoking a fixed mindset. Plus, in itself, the word ‘praise’ conjurs certain understanding of fake/OTT behaviour…

    Just my thoughts. Congratulate when it is truly deserving but if you think an individiual has more in them then it’s our job as parents to expect the best. If we really know our children then we know when they can dig deeper thus enabling a growth mindset.

  5. Ian Squire says:

    Hi David,

    Greetings from the other side of town. I have been reading a lot about self-esteem and when I read your post I could not help but draw on the similarities. Some children thrive on praise and it almost becomes and addiction and for them, perhaps Dwecks Mindset work seems to fit. However some children are more able to defer gratification and have a much clearer picture of the imbalance between where they are and where they want to be. This gap between ideal-self and actual-self is where, I think, the Mindset ideas falter. We all measure ourselves on success and in some cases focusing to much on effort may be having a negative impact on motivation, engagement and ideas of personal worth. Many students don’t view effort as a personal quality that is valued by adults and peers; especially in our competitive,material, buy now pay later, x-factor society. Therefore effort has little value in their evaluation of themselves.

    Keep up the good work

    Ian

  6. [...] most often seen in meaningless comments like ‘Well done!” I’ve written about the problem with praise before and we need to be mindful that while praising students is important for all sorts of [...]

  7. [...] And once you’ve digested all that, there’s also the thorny dilemmas of giving grades and mixing feedback with praise. [...]

  8. alexkx3 says:

    Maybe this could shed some light on the subject:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PVhUdhZxbGI#t=20m30s

    Important part at 20:30

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