middle school classWe’ve been a bit sceptical about the self-esteem movement on this site in the past but now it seems we are in respectable company. A Washington Post article looks at new educational theories about praise, and a school that is rationing it — for the sake of kids’ intellectual development.

“We used to think we could hand children self-esteem on a platter,” Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck said. “That has backfired.”

Slow kids don’t try hard enough and smart ones are scared to take risks when they are smothered with unearned praise.

The new approach seems to be mainly inspired by brain research and the idea that the brain is a work in progress, especially for the young. There is talk of persistence, risk-taking and resilience, of sweat and strain rather than warm fuzzies, but fostering these habits is geared to setting “the neurons popping” and giving children a sense of control over their success — rather than character development as such. Still, that is likely to happen as well.

Brain imaging is the magic technology used to convince the teachers and students:

That’s how teachers at Rocky Hill Middle started talking about “neuroplasticity” and “dendritic branching” during training sessions. They also started the school year by giving all 1,100 students a mini-course in brain development.

“This is the most important thing you are going to learn this year,” Hellie said she told her students before playing a YouTube video that explains how brains grow. “It has to do with the way you are going to live the rest of your life — whether you will continue to learn, be curious, have an active, growing brain or whether you are going to sit and let things happen to you.”

Underlying the praise backlash, says WaPo, “is a hard seed of anxiety — a sense that American students are not working hard enough to compete with students from overseas [children of Tiger Moms, for example] for future jobs.”

In an oft-cited 2006 study by the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, U.S. eighth-graders had only a middling performance on an international math exam, but they registered high levels of confidence. They were more likely than higher performing students from other countries, such as Singapore and South Korea, to report that they “usually do well in mathematics.”

Praise should be relevant to objective standards, says one expert with a very interesting turn of phrase. (It would be good to see objective standards make a general comeback). Kids need to know what proficient or gold-medal performance looks like. Another stresses the importance of recognising effort:

“Does the teacher say: ‘Who’s having a fantastic struggle? Show me your struggle.’ That is something that should be rewarded,” she said. “Does the teacher make it clear that the fastest answer isn’t always the best answer? [That] a mistake-free paper isn’t always the best paper?”

A welcome development, don’t you think? So long as it’s not all reduced to brain enhancement and the soul is overlooked.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet