Praise and self-esteem

I have spoken before about some of the things I don’t believe. There are many trends and fads in education, and many seem self-evidently true – but as a scientist I know that what seems self-evident needs to be tested before becoming an accepted rule.

One of the biggest such fads is “self-esteem”. We are told that without self esteem, children will fail. It has been repeated so often that it has become part of the fabric of the education system in North America. It has changed policy, making it harder for students to fail (because that would hurt their self esteem, which would lead to, um, failure).

Part of the self-esteem picture is providing positive reinforcement, which usually comes in the form of praise. I mean, after all, who doesn’t get a little charge out of praise – or even flattery? It gives you that little rush of happiness, and that has to be good for self-esteem, right? And that has to be good for student success, right?

But that has always bothered me. Sure, I get that little rush when praised just like anyone else, but I always flt self-esteem came from accomplishment, not praise. Now a new study in the British Journal of Educational Psychology addresses the issue of praise, and concludes not only that some praise – that directed at the person (“You are very clever”) is detrimental, but also that process directed praise (“You worked hard”) is no better at fostering future success (or dealing with future failures) than no praise at all. In other words, one of the things that has been pushed in education for the last thirty years as being “self-evident” is virtually useless at best, and often detrimental.

What really bothers me is that, though I like to try to keep up with the research, most educators and policy makers do not. Decisions are based not on research, but popular belief and seeming-self-evident “truths”. And those of us who try to base our best practice on research are not lauded for doing so (which might feel good, but not actually help our self-esteem…) but criticized for not going along with the popular trends.


One thought on “Praise and self-esteem

  1. Heather Anne Burch

    I am currently in my last year of a B.Ed. program in Canada’s North, after a B.A. in Cognitive Science. I want to thank you for this post. I love your approach to teaching and have enjoyed reading your blog posts and linked articles. I will definitely continue to follow your work 🙂


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