Thursday, April 16, 2009


Although I retired from teaching six years ago, news of current research in education still has the power to grab my attention. The other day I read a piece about how the now-25-year-old trend to help kids build their self-esteem has created adults who expect accolades for achievements as small as showing up for work. I never did buy into the theory that constant praise helped youngsters. Rather, my lessons aimed to set goals for my students that were challenging but still achievable.
The painting that accompanies this blog entry reminded me of the dangers of false praise. It’s a painting that brings back a strong sense of frustration every time I look at it. I painted it during a lengthy and expensive workshop in portraiture. It was the first workshop I’d ever attended, and it was apparent from the get-go that my skills were to those of the other attendees as the B-squad football team is to the pro’s. The workshop was pricey, the instructor’s vitae impressive. I was determined to get something out of the weekend.
The instructor, a well-known artist in her own right, was sensitive enough to become aware of my frustrations in trying to capture the model’s likeness and mood. After the third visit to my easel, she grabbed the pastel from my hand and with strokes that were too quick for me to follow, she added shadows and highlights and said, “See? That’s all that’s needed.” An hour later she returned and praised my painting. “Excellent! This is wonderful!” Well, there’s no surprise there, I thought to myself; after all, it was her own work that she was praising; I hadn’t touched the face.
It took about six months for me to return to that painting and rework it, thus making it mine. And while I’m not displeased with the final result, it’s not the final result that I see. Rather it’s the disbelief, frustration, and eventual anger I felt as the instructor -- no doubt with all good intentions -- tried to help me feel good about my efforts. And while working on another’s piece of art without permission violates all the rules of teaching, what really irked me was her praise. It was false. No doubt her intent was to help build my confidence as a portrait artist. What she left me with was a nagging sense of incompetence.
So I was excited to read that current research in teaching and in child rearing is urging educators and parents to avoid gratuitous praise. Those memories of false praise can stick with a person for a long time. The result is often an equally false sense of failure. Our kids deserve better.

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