“People wish for criticism but what they want is praise.” – W. Somerset Maugham

“I love criticism, just so long as it is unqualified praise.”

Noël Coward

Who doesn’t like a little bit of praise? Well probably those of us who like a lot of praise.

Affirmation, reassurance, and a warm fuzzy glow come when we hear nice things about what we have done, and young people can be lifted high when praise is given. When it isn’t forthcoming it can be disappointing and frustrating. Schools tend to have formal methods of praising what they regard as being of value. Soon enough there will be the first progress tests – good scores often result in praise. We are getting to understand the levels that we should expect from pupils now and as time goes on, we should be able to reward work well done with the praise it deserves. But as important as praise is, it is not without its challenges. Too much praise, it could be said, devalues the currency. Empty praise where standards have been reached without particular or noteworthy endeavour or effort are just that – empty. It is probably the case that praise won too easily or offered too readily is not worth having. That is perhaps why encouragement exists.

Schools in general are probably guilty of looking to praise that which is excellent. I’m not for a minute suggesting that we ditch Prize Giving or Achievers’ Assemblies, but I do sometimes wonder if we could or should reward with praise other actions. I’m not sure I have ever used an official channel to praise a pupil who has demonstrated integrity. More fool me, that is something to correct. Similarly, how should we reward those who strive to discover their limits and who do not achieve the highest grade or breast the final winning tape in first position? At the BSP we are good at recognising improvement, at lauding those whose effort and engagement with whatever it is they are doing demonstrate perseverance, but perhaps we could go further. Imagine a report that explicitly focused on character development alongside academic achievement. It would make for interesting reading. Writing it would require a different type of knowledge.

This week I had interesting conversations with a variety of pupils on this topic. A group arrived at my Tuesday breaktime drop in to discuss this very issue, and a convincing case they made for their perspective. Later in the week I had the good fortune to discuss the idea that adaptability is a value, I think we agreed that it is a laudable character trait and could well be termed a value. Both encounters set me thinking. Samuel Johnson was clear about praise telling us that “like gold and diamonds, [praise] owes its value to its scarcity.” I’m not sure I fully agree with this, but I do think we could look to spread our approval a little wider. Carol Dwek perhaps summed it up well when she wrote “the wrong type of praise creates self-defeating behavior. The right kind motivates students to learn.” Perhaps we as educators or parents should consider how and what we praise. Above all else it is important that in the sometimes-difficult world in which our young people live, where life is examined and perfection seen as an everyday achievement through airbrushed snapshots of fictional life, we teach them to recognise when they should praise themselves, reward themselves or allow themselves to feel some satisfaction or contentment in what they have achieved. That praise might be the very best form of this valuable commodity.

Nicholas Hammond