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From placenta to play centre

The paralysis of praise

Recently, a school in Perth, Australia announced that their teachers would be cutting back on praise and rewards for students. Their underlying idea is that over-praising children may not be the best way to set them up for a life that will inevitably include some disappointments.

It’s a very interesting idea, and one that I feel has some merit. Below is a comment piece that I wrote for The West Australian.

School is about much more than academic excellence

Someone far cleverer than me once wrote that education is not about filling a bucket, but about lighting a fire. What a beautiful idea.

It means that education is not about piling on top of children each and every piece of knowledge they will need to navigate a life’s journey. No. It means that education is about igniting a passion for a life full of learning.

What a load of inane codswallop? Well, yes, it may be. It all depends on how you interpret the word ‘education’.

Too often, we – the media, researchers, parents, children, and interested and non-interested bystanders – see school as place for education solely of the academic kind.

Certainly, it is this. A life without at least some knowledge of three ‘R’s, is a life full of roadblocks.

But education is more than this. School, in particular, is the birthplace of, and often a lifelong reference point for, emotional education.

More codswallop? Perhaps not.

Think back to the first time you felt the anxiety of a difficult social situation, or the first time you felt the despair of being disappointed in yourself. While you’re reminiscing, cast your mind back to the first time you felt the euphoria of achievement, or the contentment of being truly accepted by another person.

My bet is that for many of those times, you were wearing a school uniform.

Emotional education is critical for child development. Teaching children about the highs and lows of the human condition ignites a lifelong relationship with resilience, persistence and humility. Few achieve a happy and content life without a healthy dose of these three attributes.

The mistakes children make at school are on a far smaller scale than those they will make in their adult years. Teaching children that not everything they do will be rewarded, allowing them to make mistakes, giving them the opportunity absorb feedback - all of this is part of nudging children towards a relationship with their own emotions.

Limiting praise in schools does not mean increasing punishment. It’s quite the opposite. It is about providing children with a safe environment to learn that their self-esteem must be based on their own appraisal of their worth, rather than that of anyone else.

To impart that knowledge, is to truly light a fire.

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