It is surprising how often people, who think punishments to be detrimental for learning, still approve praise as an effective tool in education. How is this possible? Both are based on the concept of superiority and having control over other human beings. Often this power is just artificial authority.
My current position as a mentor for graduate students pursuing their M.Ed. degrees is delightful: I spend my days supporting my students’ understanding and learning process, but I don’t have to be a gatekeeper (and I don’t have to do any grading, yay!). Mentoring requires a specific disposition: the belief that everyone can learn, and that learning cannot be enhanced by praise and punishment. Now, please don’t get me wrong. Performance can be increased (up to a point) by praising and punishing and pushing students to complete their products, but engaging in one’s own learning process and deeper learning requires self-regulation and self-reflection. We can lead students to that path but we cannot force them to walk it. External control cannot help students forward in the path to self-transformation.
I do remember the time when I still believed in praise and punishment. I am sure my children remember that, too. And for that I want to apologize to them, wishing that I knew more about learning and development when they were young. Fortunately it is never too later for additional development. Kegan and Drago-Severson have an excellent framework of adult development.
It hurts my ears when I hear someone talk about praise and growth mindset in the same sentence. The two could not possibly fit together. Praising someone means that they have met an invisible standard, for which we want to extend our approvals as superiors. Rewards and gold stars are just a tangible form of praise. Growth mindset carries the same notion of self-transformation as engaging in the personal learning process. As educators it is important to offer timely feedback for students about their learning. However, praise and feedback should not be mixed. Feedback focuses on the achievement and based on transparent criterion of expectations. Praise is based on hidden expectations or personal opinions. It is a value judgement about the behavior or qualities of another human being.
Every educational institution has their own hidden curriculum – the expectations that are not voiced or written. Often these appear in the form of practices and traditions. Hidden objectives are the hardest to meet. A common coping mechanism to meet hidden expectations is the attempt of pleasing the person at control – whether teacher, professor, boss, or anyone else in the position of power. The damage for the organization gets doubled: the person in control only hears the voice of pleasers and cheerleaders, and the structure becomes skewed with the lack of open and honest dialogue. This can easily lead to cliques in classroom (or workplace) and decreased collaboration.
Those who remember Berne’s Transactional Analysis (TA) will probably recognize the roles of Parent and Child in the praise and punishment situations. Engaging in dialogue on Adult-Adult level is the most important tool for every educator. Students often fall into the trap of playing the child role, especially if their learning process gets reduced to creating learning products that may have no real-life connections, and if they often face praise and punishments in their learning environment. This can happen to adult students too, especially when their learning motivation is externalized. On the positive side it is fascinating to observe young children to behave with maturity above their years when the human dignity is extended to them and they are offered opportunities to self-regulate.