Reflections on authenticity in teaching and learning
I had not done my homework. First Hindi lesson back after Christmas and I arrived sheepishly aware of the fact that I had not once glanced at my Hindi books/materials over the Christmas break. I felt bad, I felt guilty and I almost chickened out of going to class not in the fear of being told off but in the fear of letting my teacher down. All that she does for me and I couldn’t be bothered/committed enough to sit down and review my notes! Pffff…
I had to leave the class early to go down south so my teacher asked me to sit beside her and told me she was going to test me on my reading of the Hindi letters. So down I sat, she opened my book and I prepared to get scolded. I have seen the younger students told, “you must really work hard now boy!” and “why are you not doing the work I set you boy?”, so I was poised ready for a proper, old-school telling-off. Which didn’t come.
I read out the few letters I could remember, a small percentage of what I’d managed to read and write without too much thought before Christmas. I was embarrassed and frustrated with myself. I knew I could do/had done better and while I was mentally castigating myself for not having given even half an hour to review over the holiday, my teacher exclaimed, “Very good na! You are good at this!”
hold on a minute…
Harmer (2007:138) writes “while it is true that students respond well to praise, over-complimenting them on their work – particularly where their own self-evaluation tells them they have not done well – may prove counter-productive“. Although based, it seems, on empirical evidence, this is certainly true in my case. I knew I didn’t deserve the praise so I said so: ‘No, I was better before Christmas”.
Having a quick look through the research, it seems there are two names that pop up connected to the topic of praise in education: Carol Dweck and Alfie Kohn. Dweck is a Professor of Psychology at Stanford and researches development and intelligence. Kohn is a freelance author and lecturer in human behaviour and progressive parenting and is known for his criticisms of praise and reward.
Let’s link my experience up to the theory. Let’s start with Dweck.
Findings from Dweck’s 2006 study with children led her to posit the theory that there are two kinds of praise: praise for intelligence and praise for effort. She argues that children who are praised for their intelligence develop a ‘fixed’ mindset and those who are praised for effort, develop a ‘growth’ mindset; the latter believe that success is achieved through hard work and are less afraid of failure whereas the former believe intelligence is static and so are also less likely to take risks. Therefore, according to Dweck, my teacher’s praise of “you are good at this!” was praise for intelligence and I took it as praise for effort; which is why I pointed out I was better before because I knew I hadn’t done the work. Perhaps to avoid revealing her opinion that I hadn’t made much effort (it must have been obvious!) and so as not to demotivate me by not saying anything at all, she chose to give praise for intelligence so at least some encouragement was given. She is aware that I am studying a language as a complete newbie whilst being in a class with native speakers who have grown up with it. She often points out how well I’m doing, maybe to promote a sense of integration. Interesting then, that she is comfortable with telling other students off but not me.
Lesson for the classroom #1: Avoid praise of intelligence, especially as a substitute for effort. Praising intelligence or ‘natural aptitude’ can result in a fixed mindset and reduce risk-taking/effort.
Now let’s see if my experience links up with Kohn.
As a caveat, Kohn has not, it seems from a quick perusal of his website, carried out any concrete research outside of the fact of working as a teacher and being a parent so as my colleague says (www.malingual.blogspot.co.uk), his writing is merely opinion-based and not necessarily more valid than anyone else’s. However, he sits on various boards of education in the US and has been awarded the APA’s award for excellence (albeit in the media!) so make of that what you will. Some of his ideas sate my progressive leanings so let’s just have a look…
Kohn is a well-known supporter of constructivism, i.e. the theory that knowledge is not transmitted from A to B but transformed by B through their interaction and communication with the context (this could be teachers, peers, environment, etc.). As such, he believes that too much praise creates ‘praise junkies’ and children who ‘come to rely on our evaluations, our decisions about what’s good and bad rather than learning to form their own judgements’ (2001) and that they should learn to construct and measure their own understanding of what is successful. These children, he believes, come to view parents (teachers in our case) as sources of reward. Underhill and Scrivener have mentioned something similar: “It’s about not giving indiscriminate praise- which means nothing.” (www.demandhighelt.wordpress.com).
Kohn continues: ‘the more we reward people for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward.’ This echoes my experience or at least makes me think about it. I really should be doing my homework more often, and according to Kohn, if I’m always going to receive praise I (okay, I am an adult not a child, but do we not regress somewhat in the classroom? Who’s researched this? I can’t find anything). Sorry I digreess…well my inner-child may think what’s the point in doing my homework? My teacher hasn’t noticed. Could the fact that I am consistently praised for improving (whether I deserve it or not), although well-intentioned, actually be affecting my motivation and therefore, learning?
Lesson for the classroom #2: Avoid praise for the sake of it; learners may see through it or feel undeserving. Be authentic and focus on the effort that has (or, sensitively) hasn’t gone into the work. Experiment with Kohn’s advice to a) say nothing, b) say what you saw and c) talk less and ask more.
Maybe the focus should be on the cause rather than the effect. I started the course with my intrinsic motivation high and have now entered what Dörnyei calls the actional stage in which motivation needs to be “maintained and protected” (2005:84). I find it thought-provoking that the maintenance and protection of motivation as outlined in Dörnyei and Csizér’s Ten Commandments for Motivating Language Learners (1998) falls under the remit of the teacher. In a true, learner-centred approach which advocates learner responsibility, I think it might be time for me to rekindle my motivation. It seems the continuous (and wrong type of praise) and my dwindling motivation are stuck in a loop and it’s my job to break the chain.
Lesson for the classroom #3: Allow for peaks and troughs in motivation and offer opportunites for students to rekindle their motivation for studying throughout the course, not only in ‘why are you learning English?’ needs analyses at the beginning of the programme.
Right, where’s that Lonely Planet gone…(other travel guides are available…)
Dörnyei, Z. ‘Psychology of the Language Learner: Individual Differeces in Second Language Acquisition’ (Second Language Acquisition Research Series) (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2005)
Dörnyei, Z. and Csizér, K. (1998) “Ten commandments for motivating language learners: results of an empirical study.” Language Teaching Research 2(3)
Dweck, C.S. ‘Mindset: The new psychology of success’ (Random House, 2006)
Kohn, A. “Five Reasons to Stop Saying “Good Job!”” in Young Children 2001. Available online at www.alfiekohn.org/parenting [Accessed 15/01/13].
* I’ve just noticed the motivation-as-a-fire metaphor…after Scott Thornbury’s post ‘T for Transmission'(http://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2013/01/13/t-is-for-transmission/), metaphors are jumping out at me!
**Correction (18.01.13): I should note that the emboldened lessons for the classroom are initially notes to myself and as such I haven’t avoided the imperative…they may be better worded as ‘try avoiding/experiment with avoiding…’.
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