To succeed in education, and in life, young people have to be prepared for bugs. Adults who are over-protective and micromanage children: parents through praising them (how clever and brilliant they are) and teachers through spoon-feeding for exam preparation and/or feedback focused on ability, actually turn children off learning and discourage them from trying to solve problems for themselves.
“’I can’t’ isn’t a reason to give up, it’s a reason to try harder.” (Voltaire)
If children are not used to learning from their own mistakes, they become defensive about trying when faced with difficulties and tend to blame outside factors, for example teachers, material, lack of resources or not enough time for their own failings. Moreover, when students are not allowed to deal with setbacks as natural part of learning, they shy from taking on challenges, become bored, give up at the first hurdle because they are afraid that their deficiencies may be exposed, and instead of putting more effort into trying or ‘having a go’, they put effort into hiding their mistakes, switch off learning and may misbehave as a way of diverting attention from getting low grades or appearing stupid.
Influenced by praise, (“Well, done! What a clever boy/girl you are.”), children may take their natural ability for granted and believe that it is enough to be clever to achieve. Therefore when they encounter difficulties, often when the material gets harder, they lose confidence and stop enjoying learning or problem solving. This kind of attitude, where children stop trying when faced with difficulties, lowers their achievement and stops them from developing their learning autonomy, which is an essential skill for learners in the digital age as young people have to be prepared for multiple career changes – learning after school!
Grading of pupils’ work can have a similar, negative influence on their future learning and achievement, where top grades can signal a ceiling on learning and reinforce belief in natural ability without too much effort (until the goalpost move), and students attaining lower grades can be satisfied from a particular grade without making more effort to achieve higher – the “C-grade for life syndrome” and satisfaction from mediocrity without much questioning or desire for improvement. Therefore specific feedback for improvement, formative-type feedback, is absolutely crucial to achievement, learning and future progress. It is imperative that educational leaders are committed to in-depth understanding of what assessment for learning involves and that schools have effective assessment processes, including feedback, based on reporting where students are in their learning, where they need to get to (closing the gaps) and how to get there, and that teachers use assessment information when planning future learning.
Among many school aims, one of the most important ones is preparation for future life – life after school. In the 21st century, more than previously, because of rapid technological advancement and fast moving job market, students need to be prepared for ‘learning for life’. To be successful, they must embrace learning and understand the important role of effort in achievement. They must be taught resilience and how to deal with setbacks. Since adult praise – ‘my child is special-type’ (Dweck, C.) is a major factor in influencing ego and undermining achievement, young people need to be taught that learning and effort are more important than being clever so they believe in their unlimited potential through effort and getting better. It is important to future progress that schools get their assessment procedures right and provide their students with effective feedback for learning that is task-related, not person-related. Any feedback which is person-focused, e.g. “That’s a really high score. You must be good at this topic”, is counter-productive to future learning and can lead to underachievement. For long-term success, students should be rewarded for effort and persistence so they understand that everyone can learn and achieve. This is critical to developing learning sustainability, which is fundamental to future success and employability.
On the danger of praise and positive labels, Dweck writes:
...almost 40 percent of the ability-praised students lied about their scores. And always in one direction. In the fixed mindset, imperfections are shameful – especially if you’re talented – so they lied them away.
So telling children they’re smart, in the end, made them feel dumber and act dumber, but claim they were smarter. I don’t think that this is what we’re aiming for when we put positive labels – “gifted”, “talented”, “brilliant” on people. We don’t mean to rob them of their zest for challenge and their recipes for success. But that’s the danger.
When you’re given a positive label, you’re afraid of losing it, and when you’re hit with a negative label, you’re afraid of deserving it.
Recently, in the British press, in response to summer public examination results and educational reforms afoot, much has been written about “helicopter parents” (hovering above every child’s move). Despite their best intentions, their actions can have a negative effect on their children’s achievements and it is important for schools to communicate this message to parents. In my experience, many parents are not aware of the danger of praise and that caring about learning is more important than caring about grades. Openness of communication is important. And so is trust.
Students need to understand the value of learning from own mistakes and that everyone can improve through effort, and we need to be consistent in conveying this message across.
Dr Joanna Goodman, Director of Cromwell Consulting Ltd