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As teachers – especially as teachers with a central goal of helping students develop self-esteem – how many times a day do we say that to kids? In my private teaching practice, I too say it often. When a child works hard, plays well, and looks expectantly at me, it’s almost reflexive.
But “Good Job!” is the name of Chapter 4 in the new book Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives, by Peter Johnston – and it’s an example of what NOT to say. It’s got me thinking.
Praise, says Johnston, can often be counterproductive for children’s healthy development. It fixes a child’s attention on whether her product is “good” or bad,” which implies defining her as a success or a failure. “Praise distracts [kids] from simply doing what they are doing,” he writes, “and turns their attention towards pleasing us.”
In my own teaching this week, I experimented with finding alternatives to praise. I came up with “I like the way you…(created a crescendo in that phrase, etc).” But I quickly realized that this didn’t solve the problem; it was still about what I liked. According to Johnston, “saying ‘I’m proud of you’ has the same effect as saying ‘I’m disappointed in you.’” The message of both statements is that what’s important is your judgment of the child.
Johnston emphasizes the importance of positive feedback, but he redefines “positive” as process-oriented observations instead of person-oriented praise. A helpful response, he says, might be to ask, “How did you do that?” In answering the question, the child will experience herself as a person who acts and makes choices that have positive consequences – she will internalize what Johnston calls “an agentive narrative.” He suggests “causal process statements” as another element of positive feedback: “You created a crescendo in that phrase, and that gave the music a sense of excitement.” The child learns that he has made choices that have powerful effects.
This is why Johnston’s message, which resonates with that of Carol Dweck and other current thought leaders, is so important for teachers in Sistema-inspired programs. “Good job!” is easy. But “How did you do that?” is what will help our kids become self-confident artists.