Saturday, January 15, 2011

Mediocre? Gooooood Jawb!

I don't believe in rewarding mediocrity as a general rule! When I arrived in North Carolina last June, I watched Mums at the pool tell their kids 'Good Jawb!' usually followed by a high five when their offspring did something fairly rubbish in the pool. Clearly not a good job and not deserving of praise. But maybe I am wrong...
An American teacher once gave out a story to other staff at a very tough school I worked in about how they teach whales to jump high in Seaworld performances. They have a rope in the water and every time the whale swam over it there was a reward of fish. There was no punishment for not doing it, no concept of failure. Slowly they raised the rope until the whale performed high jumps without any rope there at all. The Whale learned by positive reinforcement.

We adapted this at the school and gave little slips of paper (which they collected and exchanged for treats) every time the monster horror kids from hell did something in the direction of learning. For some this was for merely sitting in their chairs - not staying there mind - just sitting briefly before running around the classroom again... I remember one kid jumping up from his seat - telling the whole class 'this lesson is shit' and walking out. The Chair of Governors was watching the lesson otherwise I would have agreed and left too. So we gave out these slips for doing what they should be doing anyway.  It didn't work. I never managed to  raise the rope. There was something I felt I could use the rope for much more productively! They knew they got the treats.  They knew they didn't deserve them. They didn't modify their behaviour and I concluded that I should never reward a student of mine for simply meeting basic expectations. Rewards should be for raising the bar. Some students never got rewarded again.
Maybe the whole resistance to praise is a British thing - we like to sneer at success - read any tabloid paper to see how we raise Celebs up only to bat them back down again like bouncy balls. (although most of them are pretty talentless and enjoy the attention!). Give someone a compliment 'Nice dress'... and they immediately bat it away with a 'What this old thing... ' (maybe that is a woman thing rather than a British thing though!). We are not comfortable with praise, winning, success.
America is different. My children get high fives from their teacher!!! They bring home little certificates on a very regular basis. Does this inspire them and make them feel proud or devalue the currency of success? They are told continually they are doing a 'good jawb!'. This concerns me when they clearly cant do something- for example my daughter struggled with long multiplication, however, she never felt like she couldn't do it. She was not told, by her teachers at least (although Hubby was quick to point out the error of her ways) that she couldn't do it and eventually she got it. There are positives but I firmly believe that we learn best from our mistakes and in order to do that you have to accept mistakes as part of the learning process, not ignore the fact that things can ever go wrong.
There is a real 'can-do' culture here and sometimes it blinds them to the fact that they really 'cant-do' but at least they approach things enthusiastically - like they can win. Such an attitude breeds people who at least feel like winners. Can we say the same of Brits? Do we go in with a can-do attitude or are we losers, sneering at anyone who dares to try, before they even start?

* Radio 4's Word of Mouth discussed this very thing on Thursday 18th - overly praising children can be negative as it does not foster resilience to failure


  1. Praise comes in degrees, you can praise someone for trying, that encourages them to try better next time. Praise and reward should only be for attchieving the goal. We all make mistakes in life (and learn by them)I have made plenty and still continue to make them. Now if someone tels me i look nice i accept that I don't brush it off, I love it . Who really konws who should praise and when, everyone has diffent values.. right or wrong!!!

  2. I began to Praise the USA way as a nanny when working in Canada and it changed my view on Child Care. 25 years later I work in Mental Health with kids. We all need to be more positive with our kids and give praise for the small stuff, they need confidence, self esteem and self worth, to go for the big stuff in life. Heather

  3. I absolutely agree we should praise our children but not for everything. Praise has to have value to be appreciated. I guess we need a balance between the American enthusiam and British reluctance!!! I also think children need to learn that failure can be valuable otherwise they cant cope when something doesn't go their way! ... Having said that 'goal orientated success' is a better driving force than 'fear of failure' - from bitter experience I know what drove me at work!!!
    I've just been listening to a radio programme on Radio 4 - it confirmed research shows praising behaviour can be positive for children. Praising skills and talents (especially OTT eg you are very clever) is negative as it results in the inability to manage failure