Praise or attention: which matters more?

Nay, do not think I flatter . . . Why should the poor be flattered? – Hamlet

The conversation on Twitter and the internet has taken a delightful turn with some thoughtful consideration of the role of praise in the classroom. David Didau in particular has articulated sharply the sometimes contradictory views garnered from research about the power (or lack of power) of praise. Summarising Dweck, he outlines the apparent importance of making praise contingent on effort in order to encourage a “growth mindset”, but also notes Hattie’s observations in Visible Learning that praise can have neutral or even negative effects on achievement, and is an entirely different matter to feedback.

What is the answer? One way of answering the question can be found in analysing the implicit messages that different kinds of praise send. Praise linked to ability tends to raise students’ expectations of themselves, while praise linked to effort (especially if associated with pity or sympathy) tends to lower it, since the message that students (and the students’ peers) take away is that the student had to work harder because they were less able. Praise that is not work-related and which seems to the child to be an emollient for failure is particularly demotivating. Some teachers – though not all – are especially destructive in using praise to communicate pity towards children labelled as learning disabled. Conversely, criticism, which most teachers are warned against in their training, can have very powerful effects in improving work when it implies that the child is able and should have tried harder. Criticism that is directed at a child’s questions, not surprisingly, has negative effects.

One of the most assured findings of behavioural researchers is that attention, not praise, is the key shaper of students’ behaviour. A classic study by Hasazi & Hasazi (1972) showed how a student’s digit reversals in mathematics were directly linked to the teacher’s attention.  When the teacher only gave attention to correct answers, the digit reversals pattern corrected itself. (There is a link to the study on @ThinkReadTweet’s website here).

Then there is the other great classic, by Hall, Lund and Jackson in 1968. The abstract from PubMed: The effects of contingent teacher attention on study behavior were investigated. Individual rates of study were recorded for one first-grade and five third-grade pupils who had high rates of disruptive or dawdling behavior. A reinforcement period (in which teacher attention followed study behavior and non-study behaviors were ignored) resulted in sharply increased study rates. A brief reversal of the contingency (attention occurred only after periods of non-study behavior) again produced low rates of study. Reinstatement of teacher attention as reinforcement for study once again markedly increased study behavior. Follow-up observations indicated that the higher study rates were maintained after the formal program terminated.

Though both studies were small-scale, their findings have been replicated many times. Attention, not praise, strengthened both appropriate and inappropriate behaviours. All this came to mind when viewing Episode 3 of Educating Yorkshire. Two boys with markedly overt patterns of disruptive behaviour were followed. It revealed both a caring school environment and the inadvertent strengthening by the school environment of the very behaviours they were most concerned by.

Consider Robbie-Joe. Robbie-Joe was reported to have behaved well in his first weeks at school. However, over time, the same problems he had exhibited in primary school emerged at secondary school. There are two probable explanations: firstly, that the rewards for good behaviour in his new school either reduced, or more probably were delivered so regularly that he reached what behaviour analysts call “satiation.” In other words, being told that he was being a good boy was not sufficient any longer, although it was at first. Secondly, the environment contained competing rewards for less appropriate behaviours – rewards such as peer attention, and perhaps more importantly teacher attention.

What was noticeable was that the worse Robbie-Joe behaved, the more attention he was given. At one point he was sat in a room with three obviously caring,  maternal women (one of them was his mother), who were all telling him what a good boy he could be, how much potential he had, and what a lovely person he was. What 11-year-old boy could resist? Would he get this kind of attention if he was quiet, well-behaved, studious? Of course not. The thought of three adults in a room all impressing upon a child how well he or she was doing would seem comical to us; three adults in a room all focused on a child’s poor behaviour seems depressingly normal.

None of this is to suggest that the teachers of Thornhill Community Academy have the wrong motives. On the contrary, it is often the strength of our concern that makes it difficult to step back and analyse what is really going on. Just as well-meaning parents can sometimes promote the wrong behaviours in their children, so too can teachers. It is a sobering, and probably unwelcome, thought.

One of the things that is remarkable about secondary schools is the way in which a few weeks after their arrival, previously biddable Year 6 students become much more challenging, non-compliant and attention-seeking Year 7s. The persistence of this phenomenon is often glibly dismissed as “hormones”. The research literature, however, suggests that secondary schools need to think hard about which behaviours they reward through attention – positive or negative – because whatever they give the most attention to, they will get back. In spades.

Further reading: Effects of teacher attention on study behavior. Hall, R. V., Lund, D. and Jackson, D. (1968) Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 1968 Spring; 1(1): 1–12

Motivation to Learn: Integrating Theory and Practice. Stipek, D. (4th Edition) (2001) Pearson.

Footnote: I am as aware as anyone that what we were shown in Educating Yorkshire has been edited down to a 47-minute narrative with a story arc suitable for television edutainment. My comments can only therefore apply to what we were shown – and to what I have seen in my own experience.

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5 Responses to Praise or attention: which matters more?

  1. Jill Berry says:

    Thanks for this. Spookily, I watched Episode 3 of EY on 4od last night and I was thinking about Robbie-Joe as I read your first few paragraphs, and wondering whether we’re in danger of overthinking this whole issue.

    The bit which was on my mind was when Robbie-Joe’s form teacher, Miss Uren (what a terrible name for a teacher – hope she marries soon and is sufficiently traditional to take her spouse’s name…), was making a huge fuss of R-J because he had got to school on time/early. On the one hand she was going over-the-top with praising him for doing something all children should do and most children will do (and not receive praise for). On the other hand I could see that she was just doing everything in her power to encourage him, to make him feel good about doing something positive and to ensure he got the message that you CAN get attention for the right things, if you make the effort to do them. And it was a much more affirming experience for him than the attention she gave him when he was late (and he cried). Reinforcing positive behaviour through praise has to be a sensible course with intractable characters such as R-J and Tom, doesn’t it? What do you think?

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Jill. Yes, it’s quite natural for us to give social approval for doing the right thing. I wouldn’t suggest we stop doing that. But I believe that praise – and criticism – can be used much more effectively than much ITT would suggest. Teachers are often working very hard to manage behaviour, but sometimes what we do may inadvertently be making the behaviour more entrenched. The implicit messages in our praise, as well as what we praise, need to be judged carefully. The biggest issue is what we encourage through paying more attention, even if we perceive that attention to be concern or disapproval. If we are doing something, but the undesirable behaviour is continuing or increasing, perhaps we should consider that we might be unwittingly encouraging it?

      • Jill Berry says:

        Yes – I do see that and recognise that we need to give more thought to how we use praise/give attention.

  2. C Baker says:

    This is common problem in education. Teachers often respond to pupils with general and non-targeted praise, which seems to gain very little. Burnett and Mandel (2010) found that the children expressed a preference of specific feedback rather than praise. Also, interestingly, 60% of the pupils preferred to receive praise privately (linking to desire for quality attention) rather than loudly in front of the whole class.

    Burnett, P.C. and Mande, V. (2010) ‘Praise and Feedback in the Primary Classroom: Teachers’ and Students’ Perspectives’, Australian Journal of Educational & Developmental Psychology, 10, pp. 145-154.

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