There is an intriguing study into positive, encouraging language and the results are, unsurprisingly, logical. Isn’t that always the way? The person who first saw the wheel in use probably thought, ‘well, why didn’t we think of that before?’
I once went on a management course that focused on language, specifically on how we speak to other people, and it all made sense; the ideas were all things we know and understand, but don’t necessarily practise on a day-to-day basis because we are inured in bad habits (and laziness).
Anyway, this study split a group into two and one group was highly praised whenever they had good results in tests. The other was praised for small, discernible achievements, without focusing on test results. They then assessed the progress made by all these students (regardless of whether they were high or low achievers in testing). Not, as you would expect, by giving them a written test, but by placing in front of them various tasks. The students were encouraged to choose their own tasks and this is what the researchers discovered:
The children who were highly praised with general comments (such as: ‘you’re marvellous’, what a great piece of work’, ‘100%, that’s what I like to see’, ‘another A*, you’re so clever’, ‘you’re a genius’, etc.) tended to select less challenging tasks, ones that would not threaten their ‘excellent’ status.
The children who were praised more specifically (‘I like the way you’ve used alliteration’, ‘I’m impressed that you simplified the figures first’, ‘the use of such bright colours works well for the background’, ‘the little dance in the middle makes the whole piece stand out more’, etc.) were less threatened by the range of tasks and willing to try the more complex tasks, actively going outside of their comfort zone.
Why? Why wouldn’t the A*, ‘brilliant’ students choose the tougher tasks and showcase their skills?
Teaching isn’t about creating children who perform well in known tasks, it is about creating and developing minds that can take a problem and break it down, creating minds focused on problem-solving rather than their own performance and retaining a high pass rate. The assessment criteria is in the process, rather than the end result and so we have students who are more confident in their abilities, more willing to explore and who are also more accepting of other people’s differences, because they perceive value not in percentages and quantity, but in ideas and quality. In their world, no-one is a failure.
Okay, let me clarify that last statement, because I detest the ‘everyone gets a badge’ mindset. It isn’t that no-one fails, more that the achievement criteria is different. While they are all trying to get to the same goal, the prize is not in reaching the goal, but in making the attempt to get there, in using their wits and brains and bodies to find a solution. I haven’t quite got my mind round to solving how this works as regards physical intelligence and winning the 100 metre sprint, but in other areas, it has to be about taking risks and exploring different paths, expanding our minds to encompass the unknown and impossible.
Everyday we fight against the mesmerising effects of a hundred YouTube feeds and social networking pings, texts and online drama that direct our attention away from what is important. The here, the now, the beauty of nature and creativity and pitting our minds and bodies against new challenges. Isn’t this what we want for our children? To excel in the face of insurmountable odds, to brave every new challenge and overcome every fear because they have the tools and wherewithal to just try. And in trying, succeed.
Then, there are the parents who stifle their children’s endeavours, enabling their fears instead of teaching them the skills to overcome their anxieties. Worse, they stifle our (teachers, librarians, TAs…) efforts to tease them out of their cocoons, belittle the rewards we offer and raise angry voices at the punishments; parents who instil a sense of entitlement and justification rather than building confidence and creating a ‘can-do’ child.
I came across this amazing video by Jason Momoa which made me want to go back in time and refashion my children’s childhoods, spend lazy hours outdoors climbing trees and painting shells rather than ensuring shoes were lined up neatly at the door.
All children are born able and capable, they’re little sponges waiting for the sweet nectar of possibilities to transform them into adventurous souls. Set their minds free and teach them the only real failure is in not doing.
The best time to plant was 20 years ago. The second best time is now. Chinese Proverb