Praise is out

Schools are rejecting self-esteem boosting, reports the Washington Post. It turns out that pumping up students’ self-esteem through easy, unearned praise doesn’t improve their achievement.

As schools ratchet up academic standards for all students, new buzzwords are “persistence,” “risk-taking” and “resilience” — each implying more sweat and strain than fuzzy, warm feelings.

“We used to think we could hand children self-esteem on a platter,” Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck said. “That has backfired.”

. . . children praised for trying hard or taking risks tend to enjoy challenges and find greater success. Children also perform better in the long term when they believe that their intellect is not a birthright but something that grows and develops as they learn new things.

Brain imaging shows “connections between nerve cells in the cortex multiply and grow stronger as people learn and practice new skills.”  Montgomery County (Maryland) schools now teach children that they’re developing their brains when they struggle to learn something new. Teachers also try to provide specific feedback on how students can improve instead of a vague “Good job!”

Praise should be used to encourage students to take risks and learn from failure, Dweck said. “Does the teacher say: ‘Who’s having a fantastic struggle? Show me your struggle.’ That is something that should be rewarded.”


About Joanne


  1. What yammer-headed academic ever thought that self-esteem could be granted rather than earned? How could this possibly have become a plan?

    • I thought it was well established, decades ago, that self-esteem is negatively correlated with academic performance.

      By the same token, although I understand how self-esteem can be earned, it’s less clear that it can be granted in school, or either that kids with high self-esteem earned it or kids with low self-esteem have not, by objective measures, earned more credit than they’re able to give to themselves. Self-esteem is tied not to objective criteria, but to our own flawed minds and fun house mirror self-perceptions.

  2. Breaking news: scientists discover sun rises in East, academics flabbergasted

  3. Hey, Joanne, this is interesting, but the problem is we all agree on it. Where’s the fun in that?

  4. It is great that schools are coming around to this realization. However, I see no need for questions like “who’s having a fantastic struggle?” That’s as tacky as the self-esteem stuff. Why not just lay off on the goopy praise? Save it for good work–and remind students, without condescension, that they can learn from difficulty and failure.

  5. If the high-ability kids are to develop persistence and resilience in response to challenges – and they should – they need more challenging work than many/most schools provide, especially at ES-MS levels.

  6. Deirdre Mundy says:

    With my own daughter (who tends to freak out when she makes mistakes even though my response is usually to circle the wrong answer and say “You messed up here, please try again” ) I’ve found it’s also very helpful for her to see adults struggling with new skills and failing and persevering. That way she realizes that failure doesn’t mean that you’re stupid or will never ever be good at this, but that you need more practice and time.

    Perhaps schools should cover the failures, as well as the successes, of great men and women.

    • My kids tended to respond well to sports analogies; continuous work on skills, not making a team at first tryout (Larry Bird didn’t make his HS team!), not making the cut for a big meet the first time etc. Admittedly, they were all serious athletes, but even kids understand that athletics, music, dance etc. all require practice and that practice doesn’t guarantee success; they’ve just not be taught that academic success should be approached the same way.