Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

This post appeared in my facebook news feed yesterday, and I immediately asked if Tereza would let me share it on my blog. In it, she questions the value of positive feedback.

Today I received my evaluation of the final project in my sports class and it motivated me for a little contemplation on one of the differences between American and Czech (or even European in this respect) culture. The task was to create my own workout and lead my classmates for the fraction of the lecture. Eventually, due to time reasons, it was ONLY 5 MINUTES. So basically, all I did was I came up with 6 exercises, explained and demonstrated them to my classmates and then we performed them for 40s each with 5s break in between. The whole time I commented into the microphone like ’15 seconds, almost there, you can do it!’ because that was one of the requirements. You can see my evaluation below. My teacher was SUPER impressed, I looked like a professional, I should be an instructor.

Tereza's feedback

Tereza’s feedback

And here comes my point – really? I did not do anything impressive, I have never led a sport lecture before so I definitely have no motivation or other techniques developed and yet, based on 5 mins of doing stuff we have been doing in almost every class this semester, I should be an instructor! Americans are just always mega super trooper supportive to students, to kids, to each other, to everyone. Whatever you do, no matter how good or bad, it’s amazing. If you ask a question, however dumb one, teachers always start their answer with ‘That was an excellent question! I’m so glad you’re asking that.’ Whatever you do, it’s awesome, whatever you say, it’s so smart, whatever you wear, it looks cute and wonderful on you. One might think that there is everything perfect in America and everybody is talented and smart here. And that’s exactly mine (and not just mine) observation – people here really do think that. People are convinced that they are all brilliant at everything they do and look great in everything they wear. This might be a too big generalization, I admit. However, I can see evidence that it is mostly true every day.

My boyfriend teaches a calculus class at university in Missouri and his students, all future engineers by the way, are used to being praised their whole lives, getting excellent grades for everything and being told they can do everything and they are the best and the like as you could see on my evaluation. So those students are all shocked when they don’t get partial credit for accidentally guessing the right result, they are all surprised that there is someone who wants them to work hard for excellent grades and does not tell them ‘great job’ if the job is actually not that great. Instead of feeling ashamed they did not learn something or did not do the homework and therefore could not solve some exam problems, they go to him to complain, to accuse him that it is actually his fault they could not solve it and beg for extra points because they are used to always do great. Some time ago I posted here a ‘proof’ which one of my classmates did in a graduate-level math class. It almost made me cry, in short, she factored ‘x’ out of the integral which depended on ‘x’, they would not have let me finish high school if I had done that in the Czech Republic. So this girl still happily attends the class and I got the honor to read one of her papers we had to turn it. It was a complete disaster, she copied every single thing from the paper which it was based on, she not just copied it but also made a lot of mistakes in copying it, her sentences did not make sense, you could not call her proofs ‘proofs’ even if you were drunk and for all that she got 15 points out of 20. I wouldn’t give her even 10. However, that might probably touch her self-esteem and that’s not desired here.

I am not saying that being supportive and appreciating someone is bad. Especially with kids you should do that a lot. However, here it is led to extreme and moreover, college students are not kids anymore. Or at least they should not be. I have already lost the sense of what is meant honestly and what is just ‘American-like’. I basically have no measure whether I did well or bad because I always get a perfect evaluation. You have no idea whether people like you or how high they think of you because they always say you did a fantastic job. At the beginning, it makes you feel good, like you are really special, you do really so well. But with time, you get tired of that because you already see through it. Again, don’t get me wrong, I do not think teachers should be harsh on students, it is good to give someone encouragement and ‘push’ but not the fake one. In the Czech Republic or Germany where I got a chance to study, or even in my family, we do not flatter each other all the time. I know my parents love me and are proud of me but they do not tell me how amazing and talented and extraordinary I am every time I do something. Therefore, when they do tell me that, when they appreciate something I achieved or succeeded in, I can be sure they mean it and I value it very much then.

Tereza Eliášová is from the Czech Republic, and is currently studying for a semester in the United States. She was one of my students in Brno

Tereza

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Comments on: "I am *super* impressed! (guest post)" (19)

  1. That reminds me of our conversation about feedback, Sandy.
    I’m thinking about presenting at the IATEFL Poland Conference about how to give constructive and motivating feedback instead of “Brilliant! Fantastic!” comments.
    Based on a book read XX years ago “How to Talk So Kids Can Learn: At Home and in School” by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish. 😉

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    • That sounds like a very useful talk, because it’s something that can be very difficult for teachers to get right.

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    • laurasheehanedwards said:

      Interesting post! I’ve been thinking a lot about praise and feedback since watching ‘Austin’s butterfly’ video on YouTube. I’d definitely recommend it. It’s only a few minutes long.

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      • Here’s the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hqh1MRWZjms I hadn’t seen it before and I’d second your recommendation. It’s a brilliant example of how to give constructive feedback and work with students in a positive way. The difference between the first version and the last version of the butterfly shows how feedback helps. Thanks for recommending it Laura.

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  2. Hana Tichá said:

    Hi Sandy,

    I’m always very happy when I come across something interesting I can relate to. Like Tereza, I also come from the Czech Republic and I grew up in a similar environment, where positive feedback was not spent wastefully. I don’t feel comfortable when I suspect that somebody butters me up either. However, without the intention to over-generalize, I’d say that for Americans feedback may not always be what it is for us, Czechs. Praise has several purposes – it can be a way to encourage, motivate, but it can also be a communication slot filler, a way to tell the person that I like it that they try hard, no matter what the result is. If you think about it, who has the right to give feedback? I mean, how do I know that their feedback is something I should measure my skills against? And if I get less positive feedback, does that mean that it’s more valuable? Do those who always get super positive feedback really think that they are amazing? Or do they realize that those who utter the words of praise are just trying to be polite and supportive? Thanks for sharing some food for thought, Sandy and Tereza.

    Hana

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    • Karina said:

      Thanks Hana, for this important point that you brought up. Yes, too much positive feedback can be detrimental when it is does not have a clear measuring point, but sometimes more positive feedback is used to motivate better future results. For example, maybe the criteria is low at the beginning, so everyone can start of on the right foot. Then the criteria becomes a little harder as this is how learning happens, and if the performance stays the same or does not improve, feedback should be a reflection of this. In the States, hard work is often rewarded more greatly than knowledge accumulation. This is because all research points to “grit” and perseverance as key for success. Hence, the use of positive motivation strategies are often done for the encouragement of hand work, just as you have mentioned. I don´t believe that this system should be discredited without point out the positive effects it has.

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      • Hi Hana and Karina,
        Hana, you raise an important point about the person giving feedback. I think this is where having clear criteria from the beginning is important. This means the student knows what they are expected to do, rather than being surprised at how they are evaluated.
        Karina, the idea that hard work and perseverance are rewarded is also important. We should tailor our feedback to the students. It reminds me of a cartoon I saw (but can’t find now) where a teacher said ‘well done’ to a student who got a C because they’d worked hard, and ‘I know you can do better’ to a student with an A-.
        Hana, you said praise “can also be a communication slot filler, a way to tell the person that I like it that they try hard, no matter what the result is”, and this is key: if students have obviously put in a lot of effort, then we need to recognise that, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t challenge them to do better too.
        Sandy

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  3. Very interesting post. I don’t know US culture enough to comment, but it did remind me of this, especially the last point she makes:

    http://gawker.com/5656667/lewis-black-blasts-americas-educational-system-on-the-daily-show

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  4. Edward said:

    The post raises some very good points. At school in England, if we got something wrong, we were told it was wrong and that we should do better.
    All this positive feedback devalues the feedback so that it becomes worthless, and one has to use increasingly strong superlatives to describe something that was good, because good was used to describe something that was average at best. when my children were growing up, they were praised when they did something well, and not praised when they didn’t. As a result they learnt the truee value of praise and know it has to be earned and not just given. One can encourage and motivate people without telling them that they’ve been “awesome”, “super dooper”, “amazing” etc.awesome and amazing are reserved for something that is deserving f those terms.

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  5. Gulmira said:

    My husband is an American and an EFL teacher. A student must work really hard to get praised in his class. So it is an over generalization to say that they pray students in the States for no reason. However, I do agree that praising should be well deserved.

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    • Tereza Eliasova said:

      Whenever one states something about a group of people, in particular, country, it of course never holds for every single member of this group. Not all of my teachers are like that here either. However, the pattern is very strong and I related my point also to experience of other people and to other aspects of communication than just education. I am happy there are people like your husband though! What is his opinion about what I proposed?

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  6. This has been great article, and there have been some great comments i’ve read. I am inclined to feel that praise has got too positive and superlative-esque; whilst it is a way of encouraging students, it also gives them the impression that they are invincible and can do no wrong, which isn’t the case. How can we truly encourage our budding minds to be better than their forebearers and produce the next scientific discovery, or the next amazing artistic work that will go down in history, if you’re simply praising mediocrity, and bad performance doesn’t get tactfully pointed out. Plus, in doing this we are going to run out of superlatives. Maybe we should just affix the word super- to everything from now on to meet this trend, and super-duper if you really think it is good?

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    • Couldn’t agree more, George. Being super impressed with mediocrity is not only counter-productive but also unfair towards the student. Most of them I think would like to know what we really think, so a balanced and honest feedback is probably the best solution (unless you’re dealing with a really insecure and under-confident student).

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  7. Thanks for the post. Really interesting stuff. I definitely agree that too much praise is counter-productive.
    Soon after reading this post, I came across one by Lawrence Hilton where he argues the opposite: better give too much than too little praise: http://lawrencehilton.com/3/post/2014/05/pouring-rain-on-desert-flowers-dont-hold-back-on-praise.html
    Both posts got me thinking and I wrote a reply on my blog: http://teflreflections.blogspot.com/2014/05/to-praise-or-not-to-praise-that-is.html Would love to hear what you think.

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    • Thanks for sharing your post Marek. It’s an interesting summary of the two posts, and the ideas you add are very important – it’s about knowing your students and knowing what works for them.

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  8. […] The first was a guest post from Tereza which appeared on Sandy Millin’s blog. You can read it here. In a nutshell, the author questions the benefit of giving praise, especially in excess. Originally […]

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  9. Phil Boardman said:

    Hi tereza,it’s nice to see you on a blog. 😊
    It’s true that the usa is a (overly) encouraging cultre…and this can certainly have both advantages and disadvantages. But as someone who was educated in the states, taught there, and then taught in Czech Republic (and have lived here for around 10 years) I think this is a pretty big generalization. I, of course, have had plenty of experiences where I or someone else was overly praised for a job that was average at best. But, in my experience, I’ve also witnessed plenty of times when the opposite happened. Throughout my education, there have constantly been students poring over theirt materials and studies because if tgey don’t, they will fail. And this happens. The American education system throughout all 50 states cannot be summarized so easily. I also know that there is often some extra leniency for exchange students who are studying these subject but NOT in their first language. I don’t know, but this could also be a part of the extreme praise in your case. I also have a new appreciation for this system after teaching in Czech, where in some regards is on the other end of the spectrum from the US one. As a teacher, this is an intersting discussion. Maybe we can keep it going sometime in Brno or Majak or wherever! 😊

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