The Misuse of Praise: Education for Education's Sake

"We run our schools upon emulation, the desire of every child to be first; and not the ablest, but the most pushing, comes to the front. We quicken emulation by the common desire to get and to have, that is, by the impulse of avarice. So we offer prizes, exhibitions, scholarships, every incentive that can be proposed. We cause him to work for our approbation, we play upon his vanity, and the boy does more than he can. What is the harm, we say, when all those springs of action are in the child already? The athlete is beginning to discover that he suffers elsewhere from the undue development of any set of muscles; and the boy whose ambition, or emulation, has been unduly stimulated becomes a flaccid person. But there is a worse evil. We all want knowledge just as much as we want bread. We know it is possible to cure the latter appetite by giving more stimulating food; and the worst of using other spurs to learning is that a natural love of knowledge which should carry us through eager school-days, and give a spice of adventure to the duller days of mature life, is effectually choked; and boys and girls 'Cram to pass but not to know; they do pass but they don't know.' The divine curiosity which should have been an equipment for life hardly survives early schooldays."
~Charlotte Mason Volume 6 pg 57 

The Misuse of Praise

I have often pondered Mason's frequent lists of things that we have a natural bend towards using, in order to motivate our children. A good while ago, a seed was planted in my heart, upon a re-reading of this particular quote, regarding education for education's sake. I realized then that knowledge should be its own reward and that I shouldn't diminish that reward by offering any other reward for learning. I also realized that living education was enjoyable, and that there was no other motivation or incentive needed. I ripped all of the star charts off of my wall, and threw away all "point systems". At this point, it is absurd to me to think that I was ever giving a sticker for minutes spent reading. Reading is the prize, the sticker simply can't compare. Sometimes, actually oftentimes, Mason's wisdom is learned in layers. 

Although I learned then that prizes and rewards are not only unnecessary when a living education is occurring, but also that they are detrimental to one, I didn't digest the idea that praise is as weak, faulty and unnecessary a motivator as a star on a chart. Praise comes naturally to a mother, and it should, shouldn't it? If I tried to calculate the number of times that I say "good job" in any given day, I am sure I would find it impossible to recall. It is simply the nature of a mother to offer encouraging words to her children. Why, then, does Mason list it here as a defective and harmful motivator in the schoolroom? To understand why, first let's break down what Mason says in this passage:

Every Child Wants to Know
"We all want knowledge just as much as we want bread." 
We know that Mason often compares ideas to food, and that her principles themselves establish that the mind requires sustenance just as the body, and that that sustenance is found in the form of ideas. If, then, every child wants to learn as much as he wants to eat, would we need to motivate them to do so with anything other than the knowledge itself?

Just before this passage, Mason says that it is "our duty to make use of this natural provision. We are to be good stewards of the God-given desire to know that our children possess. Again, if we believe this to be true, we must ask ourselves if prizes and awards are stewarding this provision. 

Where We Fail 
 ...we offer prizes, exhibitions, scholarships, every incentive that can be proposed. We cause him to work for our approbation, we play upon his vanity, and the boy does more than he can.
Before we examine the results of this failure, we must understand exactly what it is that we tend to do that Mason is admonishing here.
1. We offer prizes, exhibitions (opportunities to "show off "), scholarships (rewards), and every incentive that can be proposed. We find any and every way to incentivize learning, and we offer these incentives by the bucketful. 
2. We cause children to work for approbation. We praise every effort of obtaining knowledge, and we have children who work solely for this approbation (praise or approval) of ours. 
3. We take performance of this nature and equate it with success. If our children are motivated by star stickers or our cries of "great job!", and they put forth more effort in order to obtain those things, we consider this effort to be a success. 

...and the worst of using other spurs to learning is that a natural love of knowledge which should carry us through eager school-days, and give a spice of adventure to the duller days of mature life, is effectually choked...  
If praise and reward return greater effort and yield more academic "achievement", then how can we consider it anything but successful? If you once had a child who detested their lessons, and whined all of the way through them, and now they work heartily for a sticker, then haven't you addressed the problem and found a solution to it? Mason points out for us that by using anything other than learning as a reward for learning that the natural love of knowledge that we are supposed to be stewarding is choked. Just like a plant that is over watered, or a glutton that is over fed, the results of these praise and prizes is to kill the desire to do anything worthy for anything other than the praise and prize that the student has become dependent upon. 

This natural love of knowledge is, by design, supposed to carry us through eager school days. It isn't supposed to need any help to be appealing, because it is already naturally so. 

"The divine curiosity 
which should have been 
an equipment 
for life 
hardly survives 
early schooldays."  
Divine curiosity, endowed by God, which can and should last a lifetime, and which equips us for all of life, doesn't survive the schoolroom...when it is mishandled. That is the great shame which Mason is imploring us to avoid, and which I believe wholeheartedly that we can do without.

If prizes, rewards, and praise aren't a worthy motivation for learning, then why do we use them? They are our natural tendency, but why is that the case? Our natural tendencies tend to be the paths of least resistance. In short, we usually prefer the easiest and shortest way out of any problem we find ourselves in the midst of. If a child truly has a God given desire to learn, as great as the desire to eat, and we have children in front of us who no longer want to learn, then something has gone terribly wrong. That isn't pessimistic, because I believe that we can remedy the wrong. Our first reaction to the realization of this wrong is what seems to be the quickest solution. If we give an incentive, they will work harder and learn more, and we have "fixed" what is wrong.... except for, we haven't. So, what must we do instead? We must return to the root of the problem, and we must be faithful and patient in remedying what has gone wrong. We do this by offering a living education, full to the brim with ideas, and by cultivating both our children's souls and minds. When we do so, we begin, slowly but surely, to see them "come alive" as Mason calls it, and we see again the natural love of knowledge which all persons possess.

So, then, why the fuss over the "misuse" of praise? Remember when I said that I immediately tore down my start charts and took away all incentives for learning? I didn't even need those things by the time that I rid our school days of them, because I had been offering a living, idea-filled education, and my children prominently displayed that "natural love of learning". I was incentivizing something that didn't need an incentive. My children already love to learn. Even still, our days were made more authentic by having nothing to gain, except knowledge itself. Except...

Mason did not say that we cause children to work for prizes. She said that our failure is in causing them to work for our approbation (our praise). We cause them learn simply to be praised. In the same way that a love for knowledge is choked by the use, and abundance of, prizes, it is drowned out by the misuse of praise. Now, I can't simply rid my school room of praise like I can a star chart. I am supposed to edify my children, Scripture says. I am supposed to affirm them, and to let them know that I am proud of their efforts and their success. Yes, but, no. Is my praise truly edifying, or is it appealing to their vanity, as Mason accuses us of? Is my praise really affirming them, or is appeasing them? Is my praise really expressing my pride for their efforts or is it simply offering empty expressions of approval?

If we can misuse praise, just as we can wrongly offer prizes and incentives, then should we not use it at all? I don't believe it would be feasible, or biblical, to never pour praise into the lives and hearts of our children. But, I have realized three ways that we can use it effectively, and appropriately. Rather than giving a "good job!" in response to every move our children make, and as a result raising children who won't learn in order to learn but rather only in order to hear that they have done well... I believe we can use our praise in a way that does not "cause the child to work for approbation". Let's praise our children...only in a way that does not "effectually choke" the "natural love of knowledge" that God has gifted them with. 

1. Praise Should be Used Sparingly 
If we tell our children that every single they do is "great", then how will they ever know when something is truly great? Everything they do is not great, because they are human. Their true gifts and their true talents can not shine among all of the other things they have done that have equally been covered with our praise. Not only do children begin to depend on our approval for their every effort, but our praise also begins to "cheapen" the more that we use it. Everything doesn't need a response. 
2. Praise Should Be Used Authentically 
If we praise a rough, crude drawing produced by the first effort to draw, and then we give the same praise to the 7th drawing of that same thing, after much practice and improvement, then how will a child know that their hard work has improved their skill? If we tell our children that all things that they do are great, then how will they know what they are truly great at? When we praise every move that our children make, we ruin their desire to do better. If they aren't ever aware that they are bad at anything, then why would they ever work to improve? Not only will they not do so, but they will lose all respect for all of those people that have. They will not respect great painters if they believe that they, with no effort, are a great painter. They will not respect naturalists if they are made to believe that they have become one upon their first nature journal entry. If we want praise to edify, we must be careful that it is not "puffing up". 
3. Praise Should be Used With the Right Motive
We must ensure that we are not putting a "band aid" on any problem, by offering empty praise. If our children are prideful, empty praise will only cause them to be more so. If our children do not know their value, empty praise will only cause them to quantify their value by the things which earn them a "good job." Praise should never be our motivation for good things. If we, as adults, serve God or others with the motivation of receiving praise, it is pride and it is sin. If our children serve God or others with the motivation of receiving our is pride and it is sin. We must use praise in order to edify, not to mask low self esteem or to increase pride.

The value of our children is not in what they paint, or draw in their nature journals, or say during a narration. The value of our children is inherent, because they are created by God. Our children aren't gifted at everything, just because they are children. They are gifted at certain things, and will struggle with others. That struggle is beneficial, and teaches the value of hard work, persistence, and seeking the wisdom of those better than us. Just as we learn from those with different passions and talents than our own, our children learn from the realization that they aren't good at something and need to work hard to be better. This process is cheapened when we tell them that what they have done is great, when it simply isn't. Instead, let's point out improvement that is hard won by consistent effort. Instead, let's model for our children the pursuit of a passion and the cultivation of natural talent. Instead, let's help our children give praise to God for enabling them to do the things that they have done. Instead, let's build our children up in the Lord, not in themselves.

If education is its own reward, and done for its own sake, then it will not be benefited by any prizes, rewards, or by any measure of empty praise. The misuse of praise, I have come to believe, is as much a travesty as is giving a sticker for reading a book. Just as a book is its own treasure, up against which a sticker pales in comparison... a job well done is its own prize, up against which our half-hearted "good job" simply doesn't measure up.

No comments:

Post a Comment