Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Praise by Design

Via Marginal Revolution, an interesting overview article on studies of the effects of praising children for their innate abilities (intelligence, uncultivated skill, etc.) vs. praising them for the effort they direct into a task. I’ve posted occasionally here and elsewhere on my criticism of the “self esteem” claims that run through popularised literature and professional practice in the education sector (at least when and where I worked in the field, which was admittedly a long time ago, in a nation far, far away…) – where a belief that adults need to instill a “high sense of self-esteem” in children functioned as a sort of unchallenged “urban legend” regulating educational practice in what I often considered to be counter-productive ways.

Out of context, my position will probably sound a bit odd: the short version is that my pragmatic experience of consulting on educational program design caused me, over time, to conclude that a principal challenge when developing effective educational strategies, particularly for children who are struggling, is actually to communicate that the need to expend considerable effort when learning is quite normal and to be expected, and should not be interpreted as a sign of failure: that some level of struggle – even quite a high level of struggle – in the process of learning is a feature, not a bug, and that one can come out the other side of this struggle with the mastery of a new skill. My perception of most strategies oriented to short-circuiting this process and trying to instill “high self esteem” directly, rather than trying to provide students with repeated, supportive opportunities to experience how they could successfully overcome frustrating situations, was that they encouraged precisely the opposite of their intended effect – convincing students either that challenging themselves was unnecessary, or that the experience of being challenged itself was a sign of failure. This summary article sounds as though there’s now a reasonable body of research that supports this position…

Since I don’t tend to write on my educational work here, though, I’m not actually posting the link to bask in how it confirms my predispositions… ;-P (And, in any event, I haven’t had the opportunity to backtrack to the studies themselves, to see how much confidence I place in their findings…) I was, however, intrigued by some of the methodologies reported in the summary article, and thought the piece might therefore be of interest to some students from a research design point of view. Even in the limited detail that comes through in the summary, there are some very clever ideas for organising a research process.

I have to admit, I’m a bit ethically leery about the first method discussed in detail: children were given a fairly easy task to complete, and at the end of the task were given a single line of praise – told either that they were “smart” or that they must have “worked hard”. The “smart” students, according to this study, then trended toward risk aversion and, after exposure to a deliberate failure via a task purpose-designed to be too difficult for them to do, their performance on the original easy task actually went down, while the “hard working” students trended toward more challenging tasks, and their performance improved. All well and good, and the conclusions are certainly interesting, but there’s something about the process of providing the kids with a specific set of conceptual tools for processing their success or failure on a task, and then deliberately setting them up to fail, so you can stand back and observe that, yes, in fact, they used exactly the conceptual tools you gave them… This technique gives me – I think the technical term would be – the heebie jeebies… But this reaction doesn’t remove interest from the thinking behind the research design…

In any event, this and other studies are recounted in more detail in the article and, I suspect, backtracking the studies could be quite useful as a source for creative research design concepts.

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