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What Makes Kids Plow? (aka “Toning Down the Praise – Experiment #1”)

Monday, March 29th, 2010

This comment on GeekDad’s post about my homework help tips really warmed my heart:

“nothing is more satisfying then spending time with my children helping them with their math homework and witnessing the ‘light bulb’ moment when they get it and plow through the rest of the problems on the page” – Pabut

RIGHT ON!!! That moment is so satisfying and exciting. AND totally unpredictable. Creating the circumstances where “light bulb moments” happen totally varies from kid to kid and day to day. What can we do to maximize those light bulb moments and help kids plow?

I stumbled across a possible answer while approaching a different conundrum. All this new research on praise has been troubling me, and I’ve been questioning my praise strategies.

I used to eagerly cheer on students at the end of every problem, or even at the end of every step of the problem (“yes, exactly, that’s right, you got it, uh-huh…”). But what I’ve recently learned makes me wonder if frequent praise might actually be damaging my students instead of helping them.

So I tried an experiment. I recently worked with a rising fifth-grader. Since it was only our second meeting, he didn’t have months of meetings with me where I’d given him tons of praise. So I tried praising him very infrequently, just to see what happened.

I found that if I just stayed quiet, my student would happily plow through page after page of math problems, only stopping when he hit something really unfamiliar.

At first, I worried that if I didn’t indicate that something was correct, he wouldn’t know whether or not he had gotten the answer right. But I realized that if I only spoke up when he made a mistake or got off track, he would know he was right if I didn’t say anything.

This really surprised me. In the past, when I praised my students at almost every step, I believed that I was cheering them on. But I was really training them to expect feedback at almost every turn.

This particular student was so focused when I said nothing at all. So perhaps frequent praise would have hurt his concentration and kept him out of the “don’t stop me I’m doing math” zone.

The conclusion? I’m going to try to tone down the frequency with all my students and see how that goes.

Related Posts:
Power of Praise #1
Power of Praise #2
Tips for How to Help Your Kid with their Math Homework
GeekDad on Math Homework Mind Meld
Tips on Effective Praise from Ashley Merryman

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