My high school English teacher rarely gave compliments or A’s. She was renowned through the school for her high standards and tough grading. I never got above a B until one noteworthy essay my senior year. When I wrote the essay, however, I didn’t think it was noteworthy at all. It seemed trite, about a high school crush. I wrote it quickly, without too much thought.
When she passed back the papers with their grades, I still remember where I was sitting, which is unusual. I’ve forgotten most things about high school but that moment stands out. I had received a 93, an A-. Even better than that, she had underlined two phrases and written a compliment. “I love this,” she wrote. I had no idea what was special about that grouping of words that she loved. I was mystified.
I never willingly took an English class again after that. There was one requirement my freshman year in college – English Composition – but that was it. Her compliment had done me in. I was afraid it was a fluke, an accident. I was afraid of having a future essay erase all the goodness that a random, five-hundred-word composition had implanted in my being. My parents often said to me “you’re the writer,” when comparing me to my brother, who was “the engineer.” But I didn’t necessarily believe them because they were nice parents prone to saying encouraging words. So, when I finally got the coveted “A,” I wanted to keep it forever. I didn’t want anything to erase it.
Carol Dweck’s book, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” (2006), was instrumental in helping parents and educators rethink the praise they gave. Studies had suggested that telling a student “how smart they were” actually impeded future efforts on tests; having a “fixed mindset” about ability actually made students perform worse. She encouraged parents and teachers to help children understand that ability is malleable, that having a “growth mindset” facilitates better results because students link hard work with results rather than the fact that they are “smart.”
In an updated version of “Mindset,” Dweck further examines how empty praise does not help children. She had noticed a new trend after the success of her book: teachers were misapplying in practice her concept of “growth mindset.” Well-intentioned teachers were praising effort, even when the effort had failed. Successful praise, Dweck points out, incorporates the specifics of the strategy and process that worked. It gives the child information for the future and helps them adjust the process of learning until it facilitates better results.
As a student, parent, and teacher, I now understand more deeply – decades later – why my A- essay was so paralyzing. Foremost, I had little understanding of what made it good. Secondly, because my parents already thought of me as “a writer,” I was afraid of any evidence that could prove them wrong, afraid of taking the risk of writing anything new. “Expectation can be paralyzing,” Natalie Goldberg, author of “Writing Down the Bones,” pointed out to us at a recent writing workshop I attended. She didn’t offer praise when students read their work aloud; instead she encouraged the other students to do a “recall” of the passages they remembered from the reading. Students then heard the specific sentences that resonated.
I learned a similar concept years ago when I took a class about teaching art.
“Give specific feedback,” the professor told us. “Look at the drawing and tell the student exactly what you see.”
That information came in handy when my kids brought home art project after art project, when I needed something to say.
“I see you drew a tree. And you colored the sky blue.”
When I pointed out specifics, even though they weren’t technically compliments, I noticed that my kids perceived my noticing of the details as positive and affirming. They noticed that I was really paying attention.
Knowing what I know now, I could’ve added, “How did you learn to draw the tree? Did you look outside? Did you use a book?”
I would understand that they need specific feedback to inform their next attempt.
The thing I would not say?
“You are such a great artist.”