From praise-junky to praise-famished: reading “What makes great teaching” with sensitivity

31st October 2014

“Even where (an understanding of what constitutes effective pedagogy) is widely shared it may not actually be right” argue Prof Coe and his colleagues in today’s Sutton Trust report, before putting to rest numerous misconceptions about teaching. Many of the report’s findings will be familiar to those involved in pedagogical debates, but that doesn’t make it any less useful. Misinformation lives on long after it has been debunked. However, it is crucial that this report does not give rise to equally damaging folk-wisdom in the future.
It’s scary to think how vulnerable busy teachers and professionals are to folk wisdom: whilst I’m the first to warn against creating “praise junkies” now, I remember with dread the many PGCE and Teach First trainees I mentored to whom I extolled the importance of “a ratio of 5 bits of praise to one criticism” (or whatever the prevailing ratio was at the time). But that’s the problem- the risk is that Coe’s report will be read by few and heard of by many. It then risks giving rise to similar hyper-simplification: Watch this space, I predict teachers will soon be told by well-meaning mentors, tutors and consultants to stop praising their pupils – an exaggerated distortion of the research that overlooks individuals’ nuanced and varying needs.
The fact is that pupils and classes don’t come to you as a blank sheet, and it’s crucial that teachers be sensitive to what’s going on in their classroom
  • The pupil who comes to you knocked into the ground by criticism from a negative family may well need some praise to coax them out of their shell if they are to participate in class.
  • The class that comes to you having failed their mock GCSEs may have given up and need each small success celebrated before they will believe they have it in them to get back on track.
With “I’m a star” stickers dished out for answering one simple question in some classes (been there done that, learned my lesson), none of that is to detract from the toxic nature of the “praise junky” culture and the importance of challenging it. However whilst a full report can deal in nuance, it also needs to be communicated with as much subtlety as possible; if not we risk replacing one false dictum with another.