Are We Turning Our Students into Praise Junkies? Really?

On the blogosphere these days you can read various opinions, along with research, about how to use praise, or not, in teaching. Some are saying that, as depicted in the film “Whiplash” (which strikes me as a horror film to be seen if only to learn what NOT to do), the popular praise, “good job,” is harmful to our students. One blogger claims these words are actually discouraging and will make students into “praise junkies.” Another says we should take pains to be precise and specific in correcting and praising their playing and that telling our students “good job” is deleterious to their learning experience

Does the problem, however, lie in the praise itself or in how and why we use it?

Violinist and pedagogue Simon Fischer, commenting in “The Strad (http://www.thestrad.com/cpt-latests/could-do-better/), suggests that some teachers use praise to cover up the fact that they aren’t doing their real job: solving problems. Evidently, says Fischer, these teachers figure that if you encourage a child’s self-esteem enough, the problems will solve themselves. Their assumption is, of course, wrong. I have seen many cases where the teacher is a wonderful, caring person who is also nurturing, kind, compassionate and encouraging, but whose students can’t play at all. The problem here ISN”T the praise – it’s the lack of teaching skills. When a teacher can’t solve her students’ problems and resorts to covering her tracks with fulsome praise, of course her students get discouraged – they can’t play. And of course her students become praise junkies – because praise is all they are getting from her. But we should think the praise itself is to blame?

There are teachers who don’t really care if their students play well or not. They may come from the old “If you have talent you’ll figure it out on your own” school of thought. They seem unaware that they should be racking their brains to help their students solve the myriad problems attached to learning to play a musical instrument. Instead, they figure that by just encouraging their students and telling them how talented they are, the problems will resolve themselves. When these students become discouraged, is the praise itself to blame?

How about teachers who think children should not be pushed, that studying music should be a very pleasant little game, and so give lots of encouraging words with little or no teaching, while not exacting anything from their students? When these students fail to learn, is the praise itself to blame?

Through the years I have seen positive reinforcement at its worst, coming from parents who praise everything the child does, is, sees, thinks, etc. This is bad enough, but the real problem is their blatant insincerity. A child (and any minimally sensitive adult) instinctively knows the difference between truth and flattery. A teacher who uses praise as a form of manipulation will surely not get the results she wants. If a teacher is not sincere with her students, they will lose respect for her and will not pay much heed to her or to what she says. Result? No progress. And we should think the praise itself is to blame?

As for turning our students into praise junkies: aren’t all performing musicians praise junkies to some extent? Of course we play music for our own fulfillment and satisfaction but doesn’t part of that satisfaction come from the totally non-specific praise we get when our audiences applaud our performances and our fans come backstage to express their appreciation of our efforts? If we are recording artists, do we not take high sales figures to mean that we did a “good job?” Perhaps we ought to prohibit applause at concerts, playing for money, and compliments in general to make sure that we do what we do for the “right” reasons and are “correctly” motivated.

We need to use common sense when it comes to praise. Of course we have to be specific in our teaching in order to help our students learn. It makes sense to:

  1.  Tell a student what he does right (but don’t overdo it).
  2.  Tell a student what he does wrong and how to fix it (but don’t overdo that either).
  3.  Tell him when he practices well and when he doesn’t and why.

If then you feel that you would like to give some hearty and sincere congratulations on something he has done well, go right ahead. IT”S THE NATURAL THING TO DO. And if you tack on the words “good job” at the end of a helpful observation, or even if you say it when warranted for any of your students’ successes, no matter how small, are you really going to ruin their chances or even discourage them? Let’s not be so mechanically consistent and dry. Let’s not demonize those two little words when there are far more important issues to resolve.

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9 March 2015

One thought on “Are We Turning Our Students into Praise Junkies? Really?

  1. Edith Felker

    Good topic, Eloise. Would you consider writing a blog concerning parents’ praise of their children’s practice and performance? How about one on why students may be more willing to take the advice of a teacher over a parent, why this shouldn’t hurt the parent’s feelings and how they could use this to the child’s advantage?

    Reply

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