Reflections on authenticity in teaching and learning

Praise be (not so good)!

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 (, 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.” (

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 [Accessed 15/01/13].

* I’ve just noticed the motivation-as-a-fire metaphor…after Scott Thornbury’s post ‘T 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…’.


18 comments on “Praise be (not so good)!

  1. Willy C Cardoso

    This is very interesting, Emma!
    For whatever is worth, I’m of the opinion that your point #3 above is much more important, and I risk saying ‘valid’, than the other two. I’m tired of dichotomies, dualities, etc, in which there’s this ‘you should do this’ vs. ‘you shouldn’t do this’ – or ‘there are two types of….’.
    Teachers should study their social context and have an informed opinion of whether to praise or not and what its implications could be, that done with students’ participation would be even better.
    What would happen if you shared this reflection with your teacher? I wonder.
    Isn’t it part of your ‘learner responsibility’ to communicate this to your teacher?

    food for thought — I’m now thinking of my own learning and its contradictions.


    • Emma Lay

      Hi Willy, how’s it going?

      Thanks for your comments and yes, I think I kind of agree with you. After writing I was thinking about it and was pondering the fact that I think I got more out of the blog by coming to the 3rd conclusion than the other two. However, reading around helps inspire me and often what I end up doing is thinking about an aspect of teaching/learning that was not intended by the authors but comes from my reading of it (if that’s makes sense!?); I guess in a kind of post-structural way…mmmm…I took what I needed/wanted from the reading in order to reach my own 3rd point. I guess it’s my way of learning through social/textual interaction!

      Anywho…yes, there seem to be an overload of ‘shoulds’ and ‘shouldn’ts’ and I certainly try to avoid using them when I work with trainee teachers. It’s more about getting ideas, seeing what others are doing/have tried (reading, colleagues, blogs!) , and seeing what works for you and your learners. I do not take prescriptively what others say but think rather, ok that’s interesting that you think that, I might have a go and see what conclusions I arrive at. I thought grammar translation was a terrible idea until I did it one day with students (oh no are the TEFL police coming!?), I suppose because I judged it without trying it.

      Thanks again for your thoughts and I am going to think about discussing this with my teacher. At this stage, it’s just me riffing on a theme but you know, I think it could start a really fruitful dialogue for both of us, if she’s interested!


      Also, let me say your Classroom-based TD webinar for BC I tuned into was really interesting, especially the bit about watching the video with our students…I’m going to have a go at this next term. I was also reading something about teacher training (Jenny de Sonneville’s article in ELT J (2007) 61 (1) about non-judgmental acknowledgement), peer observation and Julian Edge’s cooperative development model, and thought why not make it a triangle of reflection… teacher/critical (but non-judgemental) friend and students!? Video would be a really interesting addition to that process too. Thanks! You see, an idea from an idea…Have a great day

      • Willy C Cardoso

        HI again, Emma
        Just dropped by to say I read your reply with interest, and that I’ll check the references you gave.
        As a long-time blogger I still get a bit frustrated when I write a long thoughtful reply, like you did, and I don’t know whether the person I replied to read it.
        So… yes.. I read everyone’s comments here since I subscribed to it, but didn’t have much to add.

        ok, that’s it 🙂

        keep the good posts coming – I’ve enjoyed your blog very much

  2. eflnotes

    Great post as usual Emma,

    Kluger and DeNisi (1996) did a large review of feedback and proposed a model which has three levels of control [Self]-[Task]-[Task Details].

    The model assumes that feedback directs a learner’s attention amongst the levels, when attention is directed to [Self] feedback is found to be less effective. So praise for effort (along with praise for intelligence) may be directing attention to self rather than task?

    I agree with Willy, we can only hope to use what we know, in the context we work, drawing on past experience and reflecting.


    nb1 – the Kluger and DeNisi (1996) study was cited in Shute, V. J. (2008). Focus on formative feedback. Review of Educational Research, 78(1),153-189.

    nd2 – also you may be interested in my blog post on Feedback looking at the Shute study

    • Emma Lay

      Hi Mura,

      Thanks for posting, I’ll certainly check out that article and your post. I suppose, yes, praise in general is directed to self rather than task…’you’re good at this’ (Dweck’s intelligence praise) and ‘Oh look, you completed both of the tasks!’ (as Kohn would have it) are both clearly self-focussed…so I wonder how you would word ‘task’ feedback and how does this sit with focussing on the learner in a learner-centred approach? Food for thought,no!?

      I did a TD session on formative feedback that came from my reading of an ELTJ article by Icy Lee about feedback FOR learning rather than ON learning so I am really interested in how we give feedback and in particular, how it’s followed up.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment and have a lovely day. Is it snowing where you are?


      * Lee, I. (2011) Feedback revolution: What gets in the way? ELT Journal, 65(1), 1-12.

  3. Nati

    Thanks for sharing Emma! As Willy pointed out I agree with point 3 to a great extent because I guess considering motivation and other factors helps you to see a bigger pictute of your learners’ progress. I really believe we should find out more and ask about our students’ work rather than state our own opinion, though of course this varies depending on the context and the course objectives. However, i do feel that showing interest in learner’s work and willingness to find out more, works better than: good job…. Mmmm… Not so good. Even, just making a comment on how u could move on with your work. Willy just mentioned asking your teacher, i think that’s a great way of praising without stating the obvious, by opening a window and encouraging you to move forward with your research and thoughts.
    Last by not least, I’ve never understood the people who seperate intelligence from hard-work, i even think it’s hard to notice the difference, i mean u can tell if somebofy has madr a great effort or not, but should we praise that and not intelligence? i mean, it could even be unfair for the intelligent ones, because by knowing themselves, they may know how much time they need to devote to a certain task… dunno… just thinking alour… Thanks again Emma!

    • Nati

      What I’m trying to say is that somebody’s work is a combination of time, effort, different intelligences, skills. If i say gr8 job based on your effort and the work is not that good… I’m lying.. And that’s awful. If i say u coul’ve done better because I feel the person should’ve made a greater effort or I believe that person is more capable, am I being fair? Again, stating opinions before asking seems a bit too biased for me.

    • Emma Lay

      HI Nati and thanks for posting!

      Your comment about asking about our students’ work rather than merely stating our opinion is of course, important and actually helps build rapport too, I think as it promotes the idea of learning as a democratic/social process rather than a T-led one. That makes me think about testing and how in its traditional format of let’s say FCE or IELTS, we do exactly the latter. Maybe because it’s summative and a snapshot of competence but doesn’t it send the wrong message about the learning process?

      I think Willy means talking to my teacher about her praise of me as a learner not my praise of her as a teacher…did I read you right? But yes, I do think opening a dialogue with her about this is a great idea.

      Thanks again for dropping by,


      • Anonymous

        Thanks Emma! An yes FCE an IELTS is like the exact opposite but I’m guessing that those are courses that have different aims and in a way we need to give feedback the Cambridge ESOL way…
        What I meant to say about Willy’s comment is that it’s an excellent eay of giving u feedback because he is encouraging u to cotinue exploring how your teacher sees praise or why she does that.
        I found it to be useful, and kind the kind of feedback we should give to learners, authentic, real/life like.
        I’d love to read what people have brought up here. I’d look for that ELT journal article. Do u remember the year?
        Thank you so very much!

  4. Pingback: Weekly round up of ELT 18/01/2013 |

  5. Emma Lay


    the Jenny de Sonneville article? It’s 2007. 🙂

  6. Nati Gonz'alez Brandi

    Thanks Emma!


    I really like your blog.. very nice colors & theme.
    Did you design this website yourself or did you hire someone to do it for
    you? Plz reply as I’m looking to construct my own blog and would like to find out where u got this from. many thanks

    • Emma Lay

      Hi Tyson, thanks for commenting and apologies for the delaying in responding. I was on holiday in India and then busy preparing for a conference. Thank you for the compliment, the design comes with the WordPress set-up, it’s the ‘suburbia’ theme. They have lots to choose from so I’m sure you’ll find something that suits your style! What kind of blog are you setting up?

  8. The Jane Genie

    Hello Emmzamina! I think we can get a little bogged down on thinking about our significance and our influence on the group but…. I thought I might venture a mention of a student centred phenomena that occurred in my elementary class, no less, last term. I don’t know how it started, but if anyone in the group got a wrong answer, I would say no that’s not quite right Maria, and the students would say, aww, don’t worry Maria! Another group I had used to mini applause each other on a regular basis. I think the students and the group can be a very significant source of motivation for some learners. I wonder if this sense of camaraderie is more exclusive to the lower levels?

  9. The Jane Genie

    I wanted to edit!! I think we can sometimes forget about the significance and influence of the group dynamic. Now that sounds more positive, thank you and sorry.

  10. Emma Lay

    Dear ‘Jane Genie’ (sorry I don’t know your first name!),

    Thanks for posting and I understand your point that we can centralise ourselves in the classroom process. This particular post came from my experiences as a learner and I was responding to how my teacher’s responses affect me as a learner and this naturally made me think about how my responses to my learners may affect them. I was reflecting on my own actions in the classroom. I agree completely that our learners are often great at peer-support and encouragement and I really relish the moment when I see this happening in classes and amongst groups at all levels. It’s important for me to foster an environment where peer support is encouraged and I try not to centralise my feedback as the only type that is valuable in a lesson; indeed in a collaborative, democratic learning environment I think my feedback is only one of many possible.

    I’d be really interested in hearing more of your ideas on ‘if this sense of camaraderie is more exclusive to the lower levels’. I will be on the look-out for this in my classes as at the moment I have a few levels. Do you know of any research that has been done into this?

    Thanks again for dropping by!

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