Empty Praise Comes Up Short

“Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration” – Thomas Edison

In one of those “great moments in education” the Washington Post reported yesterday that “In schools, self-esteem boosting is losing favor to rigor, finer-tuned praise.” It’s a fairly well written piece and worth a look. Apparently there is some research out there (groundbreaking?) showing that empty praise doesn’t improve academic performance. Or, as the article puts it, “a growing body of research over three decades shows that easy, unearned praise does not help students but instead interferes with significant learning opportunities.”

The gist: giving praise where none is due turns kids into praise junkies instead of hard workers. Furthermore, it encourages otherwise bright kids to shy away from difficult tasks for fear of failure, preferring instead to focus on “cake-walk” assignments that they have little chance of getting wrong.

This is no surprise …

I’m not shocked by these “new” findings. There are some of us that have known/believed this for a while – despite what the establishment has claimed. Heck, it’s biblical. Consider some verses:

“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor” – Ex 20:16. It seems simple, but  “don’t lie” should have done the trick. Telling kids “you did great” even when they did poorly is false testimony (though perhaps not in a court of law). Now, I’m not angling for sternness here, one can easily “speak the truth in love” (see Eph 4:15).

“Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly” – Lev 19:15. Fair judgment, right judgment, no favoritism. (One of the hallmarks of the false-praise movement has been that the poor and under-privileged need to have their self-esteem built up so they can achieve.)

“For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you” – Romans 12:3. Got that? Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought. And, by inference, don’t encourage your neighbor (or your neighbor’s kid) to think more highly of himself than he ought. Now, from where I sit, the phrase “sober judgment” also implies not to think less of yourself than you ought (and don’t tear down your neighbor or his kid so that he thinks too lowly of himself).

“Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor” – Rom 13:7. Yes, the verse isn’t talking about education, but the notion of “giving honor to whom honor is due” is relevant.

Beyond false testimony or wrong judgment, the Bible also has plenty to say about growing through difficult circumstances. “See, I have refined you, though not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction” – Isaiah 48:10. “I will refine them like silver and test them like gold” – Zech 13:9. “every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful” – John 15:2. “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials” – 1 Pet 1:6.

One of the more interesting points that comes out  in the article is that while American students have average performance compared to students from other nations (specifically in mathematics), they are far more likely to have high confidence in their abilities. That is, even when they’re failing they think they’re succeeding. This just defies all common sense – but it is the perfectly logical outflow of false-praise.

The mea culpa won’t be forthcoming …

Don’t hold your breath for the education establishment to issue a mea culpa over this. Education results have been trending negative for quite some time, and if this false-praise research is to be believed, the insistence of protecting self-esteem at all costs has not helped. (And by “not helped” performance I mean “hurt” performance.) Will the establishment come out now and confess that their approach was flawed and that a generation was given a lesser education than they should have been?

The problem of education is the problem of government, progressivism, an theocracy …

And why not? Why won’t there be a confession of guilt? Because that’s not what authoritarian systems do. Unchallenged, “all-knowing” bureaucracies cannot afford to appear to be failures. It would challenge their authority going forward.

It is the same for the education establishment, the government, progressive ideologies, and theocracies. They limit the choice to one (themselves), and then insist that they have done the best that could possibly be done, even in the face of deplorable failures.

This runs exactly counter to the notion of freedom and self-determination. I should be free to choose education as I see fit – and not to pay for failure from the non-choice alternative. I should be free to choose moral decisions for my own life (whether sexual, substance, or benevolent). This doesn’t mean I’ll always choose what is best, but I have as good of a chance as an bureaucrat or a majority of my neighbors. And I should be free to choose my own worship of God (and I have chosen Christ). This does not mean that all choices are equally valid (of course I don’t believe that) – but free choices are the ones that matter at the end. God is not interested in automatons.

And so it goes …

So, the story rolls on. I’ll continue  to push for completely free education choices (and, by implication, free choice of which system we choose to pay for). That won’t happen because of one article by the Washington Post, but it is a small, small, small step in the right direction.

I’ve argued in times past that good teachers would prosper in a system of free choice. Wealthy parents are willing to pay great sums to educate their children. Poor parents are willing to work ghastly hours to find a way to educate their children and give them a better tomorrow. In this world, people who are skilled at teaching can command a great salary. They don’t need to hide behind bureaucracy, limited choices, and political power.

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One Response to Empty Praise Comes Up Short

  1. Pingback: The Pain of Low Standards | Freedom at Bethsaida

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