Examining praise: Stephen Grosz – the third instalment!

Guest post by Anne Goodwin (Annethology)

Earlier this year, after reading 7 Reasons Why Lovers of Fiction Should Read The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz on Anne Goodwin’s writing blog, I decided the book sounded too good to resist and promptly listened to it as an audiobook on my commute to and from work.

I was delighted with Anne’s recommendation, and like her, found the book compelling reading and thought provoking. So much so that I wrote a post about it: A book worth reading: Stephen Grosz “The Examined Life”.

However the chapter that captured my attention and challenged my thinking more than any other was the one about praise. I also blogged about this: Seeking praise: Stephen Grosz revisited.

My post about praise got Anne Goodwin thinking further about this issue and she was able to delve into it more deeply with her background in psychology. She has very generously written this guest post to share her thoughts.

Thanks Anne – over to you:

Although I was enchanted by The Examined Life from the first page, I glossed over the chapter on praise. Reading primarily for the parallels between these therapeutic case studies and reading and writing fiction, I didn’t stop to analyse my reaction, to acknowledge I was challenged by the suggestion that praise could be detrimental. Perhaps I dismissed this chapter as a reaction to the rarefied atmosphere of that cosy part of North London that is the hub of British psychoanalysis. In my neck of the woods, as reflected in my flash fiction piece, Peace-and-Quiet Pancake, I’m more concerned about a shortage of praise and encouragement than an excess.

I was initially disappointed when Norah mentioned on Twitter that, with over thirty chapters to choose from, she’d decided to blog about the chapter on praise. Yet her wonderful post showed me what I’d missed in my initial (defensive) reading and inspired me to go back to the book and ponder the depths of wisdom within those four and a half pages for myself.

“Stephen Grosz calls into question where our ideas of good practice originate.”

In suggesting we rethink what’s best for our children, Stephen Grosz calls into question where our ideas of good practice originate. We tend to respond to the mistakes of our forebears by striving to do the opposite, so those of us who suffered from a dearth of praise ourselves might be inclined to lavish praise on the next generation. Yet we can become so fixated on turning our backs on the approaches we know from experience to be unhelpful, we’re blinded to the potential pitfalls of the alternative path. Cutting back on praise feels treacherous, like siding with the harsh disciplinarians of days gone by. Stephen Grosz points us towards a third way.

“Behavioural strategies are invaluable for introducing the necessary structures and routines in which children can prosper and learn.”

Behavioural psychology shows that targeted rewards, either tangible, or intangible like praise, increase the frequency of desired behaviours. Rewards are actually most effective when they’re doled out intermittently, which might be one argument (although not the author’s) for soft-pedalling on the praise. Behavioural strategies are invaluable for introducing the necessary structures and routines in which children can prosper and learn. However, they can also result in the over-controlled and compliant child, one who is well versed in pleasing adults but struggles to think for him or herself.

“Stephen Grosz suggests that parents and educators can become as addicted to praise as these children.”

Stephen Grosz suggests that parents and educators can become as addicted to praise as these children. The mother who continually tells her child she is good might be vicariously praising herself. Underlying this might be a lack of confidence in her own parenting skills and a difficulty accepting her child as a separate person, with potentially different values and preferences. This is unlikely to enhance the child’s confidence and self-esteem.

“He also cautions us to be wary of praising children for what they are rather than for what they do.”

He also cautions us to be wary of praising children for what they are rather than for what they do. He cites a study in which, consistent with attribution theory, children praised for their effort rather than their intelligence, developed a more positive approach to problem solving. We can always put in more effort, but if we believe success is down to stable and unchangeable factors we might be less resilient in the face of the failure we will all, however talented, meet at some point in our lives.

“a third position where the adult is benignly attentive to the child and curious about what he/she is doing.”

What the author recommends is not a return to a pedagogy of threat and punishment, but a third position where the adult is benignly attentive to the child and curious about what he/she is doing. The child who believes that an adult is genuinely interested in their ideas, thoughts and feelings, is likely to develop a strong sense of agency and self-worth. While this might seem a radical approach, it’s not dissimilar to the behaviour of a tuned-in mother who watches over and mirrors her baby’s moves. It’s also the stance taken by the psychoanalytically orientated psychotherapist.

This is familiar ground for me, but I didn’t recognise it on an initial reading. Having already decided I loved the book from hearing snippets on the radio, I was reading it for what I could praise. I hope it wasn’t empty praise, but I was unwilling to engage with parts that were hard to swallow. On the second reading, my stance flipped to critical, almost punitive, focusing more on what was missing from the chapter than what was actually there. Now this process of putting my thoughts into words has brought me towards the position of curiosity and attentiveness I wish I’d had first time round. Whilst other readers might be less defensive, it does make me wonder, if it’s a struggle to reach this position in relation to a text, how difficult might it be to apply this learning in the real world and on a larger scale?

“While parents, politicians and educationalists might all claim to value individual expression and personal growth, this has to be weighed against an equally strong pressure for the achievement of standardised performance goals.”

On a sociopolitical level, we might resist this understanding because of conflicting views as to what education is for. While parents, politicians and educationalists might all claim to value individual expression and personal growth, this has to be weighed against an equally strong pressure for the achievement of standardised performance goals.

On the individual level, as Stephen Grosz says in his final paragraph, being present with others is hard work. Therapists have their own therapy in addition to training and supervision; parents striving to do a similar job with only their experience of their own parenting to draw on could struggle to find the position of attentiveness beyond both praise and chastisement.

“Children who have never been praised, even for attributes outside their control, might have no concept of their own ability to impact on their environment.”

Furthermore, for the child entering school knowing only neglect and criticism, a teacher’s benign curiosity could be experienced as threatening, just as the neutrality of therapist can provoke anxiety in his or her client. Children who have never been praised, even for attributes outside their control, might have no concept of their own ability to impact on their environment. Does the busy classroom teacher have the resources to be truly present with them in the way they require?

Thanks, Norah, for challenging me to revisit this chapter and for the invitation to rework my comment into a guest post. For those who’ve had the patience to stay present this far, I look forward to your reactions.

Thank you Anne for the insight and challenge you have offered with much for us to think about.

I reiterate Anne’s invitation for you, the reader, to share your thoughts on this topic, and suggest you head on over to Anne Goodwin’s writing blog (Annethology) for a great assortment of interesting fare.

21 thoughts on “Examining praise: Stephen Grosz – the third instalment!

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  4. Caroline

    Hi Anne and Norah
    Some of this seemed to echo what the American educational psychologist Carol Dweck wrote about: the idea that some young people (adults too) have a performance orientation to learning (they love praise, empty or otherwise) and other have a learning -she calls it mastery – orientation, which emphasises effort and learning skills. For them praise needs to be immediate, contingent and relevant. Our schools in the UK have been encouraging performance orientation and the emphasis on tests has been taking away from developing the learner and their undertanding of their own learning.
    Carol Dweck Self-theories brings much of this together. Alfie Kohn has also written on this in Punished by Rewards.
    I need to read Stephen Groscz’s Examined Life before I spout too much more about this.
    Great blogging!

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    1. Annecdotist

      That’s fascinating, Caroline. I wonder if she’d have a view on where those different orientations come from and how robust they are overall. It makes me think of all that advice to writers about writing for the joy and to learn how to do it rather than to be published – although so many of us crave the validation of publication.
      I hope you will read the book and come and pontificate more!

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      1. Caroline

        My take on that would be that people can learn, practise a different orientation, and see how it feels. That’s the job of teachers.
        This relates to my comments about Norah saying she was not able to sing. (A performance view – not in the concert sense, but in her focus on the outcome). I countered with everyone can learn to sing (a learning orientation – focus on the learning). Oh dear I’ve gone a long way from praise. Some praise can reinforce the performance orientation, but praising the effort, the seeking of alternatrive strategies may reinforce learning view.
        Oh dear. I expect you can tell what i did for a living. And wrote about!
        Thanks for the recommendation. I shall read the book that started this and may have even more to say!

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        1. Annecdotist

          Brilliant, Caroline.
          You’ve got me thinking about the mixed-ability choir of which I’m a member. We do perform, and pretty complex classical pieces to a reasonable standard, but the overall ethos is about the enjoyment of taking part. There’s some praise, but it mostly feels like it’s done to draw our attention to what’s going well. There’s also some criticism, particularly as the performance gets nearer, but again this is more of a reminder that we need to try to do something different. There’s also an acknowledgement of the effort we all put in at the rehearsals and practising at home in between. I’m sure all of these help us towards a decent performance, but I think the main element is the atmosphere of acceptance and the leader’s benign attentiveness as described by Stephen Grosz. Okay, we can’t all do our own thing, and there is a performance standard we are working towards, but we’re there to enjoy it. I feel really lucky to be able to be part of it.
          I’m sure Norah will have something to add to this when she’s not so busy. Look forward to the ongoing conversation here or elsewhere.

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          1. Norah Post author

            Well done Anne. I think you and Caroline have nailed it. It is great always to have that timely and appropriate feedback so that you know what is going well and where improvement may be needed. I think the fact that it occurs in a supportive environment is also crucial to the learning process. I guess this brings me back (I’m a teacher, what can I say) to the classroom situation. A welcoming supportive environment with lashing of encouragement through just that sort of timely and appropriate on-the-spot, attentive feedback with a sprinkling of praise for a job well done targeting those who need it, especially those who lives are often bereft of anything positive (referring back to your article Anne). You may notice that I started this comment with praise, but expanded it out through explanation and feedback. A combination of the orientations a la Dweck? I think I’ve found another must read. Thanks Caroline. And thank you Anne. May the conversation continue. Whose blog this time?

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              1. Norah Post author

                I’m sure that can be done. You have already alluded to it in a previous comment when you discussed the pleasure of writing for oneself compared to the joys of publication. I, of course, would think about this in relation to the classroom, early childhood with beginning readers and writers at that, and the effect of feedback, including praise, on the development of reading and writing. Caroline also mentioned writing she had done on the topic, I think. I will need to contemplate the angle for a bit. The topic has certainly sparked and sustained our interest. I wonder if a series of questions might help to scaffold thinking?

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        2. Norah Post author

          Thanks Caroline. You know, since our discussion about singing I have been contemplating having some singing lessons. I’m thinking it would be good to have a before sample, and an after sample. The time is not quite right at the moment, but it’s certainly closer to the top of the list than it was earlier; so thank you for the challenge.
          I would love to read more of what you wrote about this topic. Can you direct me to some relevant content? So far as guessing what you did for a living, is it something to do with education or psychology?
          Please come back and have much more to say. I’m finding this fascinating, both as an educator and on a personal level.

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      2. Norah Post author

        I agree Anne. I’d love Caroline to tell us more about the ideas of Dweck and Kohn, and her own ideas! Have you written about these anywhere Caroline?
        Perhaps we need a little of both – encouragement along the way for our learning, and congratulations (praise) when a job is completed?
        I know we are all life-long learners, but often the learning we chose is in order to be able to do something e.g. I am learning about publishing on the internet (blogging and tweeting) in order to learn more about establishing a website for my teaching resources and making ebooks. The encouragement of so many wonderful interactions, such as these, is rewarding and provides encouragement to continue. At this time it is a reward in itself, but it is not the ultimate goal. The praise does not exist in words such as well done, you’re doing a great job. The praise is inherent in the interactions, the attentiveness or third option, as you said in your article, Anne.

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    2. Norah Post author

      Hi Caroline,
      Thank you very much for your comment and encouragement. I appreciate the recommendation of the two books, neither of which I have read. You have said that you need to read Stephen Grosz, maybe I need to read Carol Dweck and Alfie Kohn. I understand the difference between performance orientation and mastery orientation and agree with the need for praise to be immediate, contingent and relevant. I have always preferred to discuss a child’s work as it is being done in order to provide immediate and appropriate encouragement, support and suggestions. As a student I liked to get the red tick and a circled A+ which recognized my performance, but I rarely learned anything from the crossed out or inserted words or comments on work returned some time after it had been completed and submitted. While it is many years since my school days, this continues to be a common feature in many educational systems, not just in the UK but around the world.
      I appreciate your contribution to this discussion. There is so much to learn.

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      1. Caroline

        Yes, I have written about this, about learning, especially with others. Still available in the UK Watkins, Carnell and Lodge, Effective Learning in Classrooms. This was written for teachers, who mostly really like it. It comes from years of work inside schools and with schools.
        I think there is pleasure (but not necessarily learning) from praise – the red ticks and circled A+ are part of our education experiences.
        Not more for a while. I havent even ordered trhe book that started this all off.

        Caroline.

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  5. Bec

    Hi Nor and Anne, thanks for the really insightful post, it’s great to read your thoughts Anne and in particular I enjoyed your recounting of how your attitude toward the book (and chapter on praise specifically) shifted based on the way you were framing it. It’s a shame more people don’t get past defensiveness to be able to see the good in challenging ideas and grow from those experiences. We’re all lucky to have you both thinking through these complex issues 🙂

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    1. Annecdotist

      Thanks, Bec. I did find this a tricky one to turn around and I’m pretty sure I’d have stayed with my defensiveness had it not been for Norah’s post. And I would say that we all need our defences until it’s safe to break them down. Thanks for your support in this.

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      1. Norah Post author

        Anne, I’m not convinced it was so much defensiveness on your part; just that this part of the book wasn’t of greatest importance to you at the time. You were more focused on the people stories and how relevant they would be to writers of fiction. While I found the stories fascinating, my interest in education meant that this chapter (out of 30) was the one that was more important for my purposes. I certainly agree with the need for defences. I like mine to have lots of padding! Thank you again for this wonderful discussion. Isn’t it great to have so many other voices join the conversation by contributing further ideas.

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        1. Annecdotist

          Nice of you to say so, Norah, and you are right that you and I were coming to this chapter with different mindsets and expectations. Nevertheless, I was reluctant to accept that my much-admired Guru was implying something I didn’t like.

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          1. Norah Post author

            I understand that now. I didn’t quite get what you were defensive about before. You have obviously come around to seeing the positives in his suggestions, but like you I think, I am reluctant to agree wholeheartedly and am not sure that children from impoverished backgrounds (I’m thinking emotional rather than financial) don’t require generous helpings of support, positive encouragement and praise. These can bring a smile to the face of a child who thought they had nothing to offer, and a seed of self-worth can grow with a little watering, appropriate fertilizer and careful tendering on what was previously barren soil. I think the secret must be in the balance, and knowing the child: there’s that ‘attentiveness’ again. I certainly agree with that!

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    2. Norah Post author

      Hi Bec,
      Thanks for your comment. I have very much enjoyed the conversation with Anne regarding our responses to this book. The content was very engaging and challenging anyway, so to be able to participate in such a worthwhile discussion is extremely pleasurable. Thank you for joining in and sharing your ideas to further enrich the dialogue.

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    3. Norah Post author

      Hi Bec,
      Thank you very much for your comment and support. I am thoroughly enjoying the conversation that Anne and I are engaging in about this book, especially the chapter on praise. It is wonderful to hear different perspectives and have the opportunity to extend one’s (my) thinking. While I don’t think Anne had to work too hard through her defensiveness, some people may need cushioning and repetition of unfamiliar and challenging ideas to assist their safe passage. It is not always easy to step out of one’s comfort zone and copious amounts of support, encouragement and patience may be required. Thank you for joining in the discussion and sharing your ideas.

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