Praise-dependent or powerful?

In recent professional learning forums with Australian teachers and parents, I see many looking quite sheepish when I raise the matter of how praise-dependent their kids are. Teachers often blame the home and feel hamstrung to change anything, but they may not be helping their students by piling on the compliments. New research is asking hard questions about the downside for our kids of too many accolades and too little self-management. It seems the self-esteem industry has been too successful by half. So how do we prepare young people for high-flying futures? Read my recent paper on praise-dependency here. 

‘Look at me, look at me!’

At a recent education conference I found myself following a motivational speaker. Not in the sense of discipleship, I need to add, but in the sense of programmatic timing. The thrust of her message to the group of senior school leavers was this: “If you look good you feel good, and if you feel good you can do anything”.

Now I have a number of objections to this proposition, the first of which arises from my invariably negative response to any proposition that smacks of irony deficiency. While I admit that this response is purely subjective, I suspect that many of my Australian educational colleagues have an equally visceral reaction, given the wave of wave of ‘top down’ policy fads and fashions we have all had to endure at mind-numbing ‘death-by-dot-point’ professional development seminars. Anything that smacks of the ‘keep-your-sunny-side-up’ evangelical zeal of Head Office or Sunday School is inevitably irony deficient and a definite personal turn-off.

The second and perhaps less idiosyncratic problem with the motivational speaker’s proposition is that it would hardly explain the success of our current crop of Australian billionaires – Clive Palmer, Gina Rinehart, or indeed, the late Kerry Packer. Whatever the factors that have contributed to their success – inheritance, timing, political savvy – you would be hard-pressed to convince me that the aesthetic appeal of their self-presentation was a major factor.

The third problem I have is of a much more troubling kind for me as an educator. It is the extent to which this message flies in the face of the complex world of living, learning and earning that will be the future for so many of Australia’s young people.  In connecting the dots between self-presentation – ‘get to that gym, get those teeth fixed, discover your favourite celebrity’s’ beauty secrets’ – and feeling good – ‘you deserve to feel really good about yourself all the time’ you will achieve everything you ever hoped for – ‘your self-esteem is much more important to your future than self-discipline and the capacity to tolerate discomfort.’

How special is too special?

Recently I was sent a photo taken in an Australian primary school classroom. It showed a collage of drawings of the faces of all the children in the class, accompanied by the following text:

I am special. In the whole world there is no-one just like me. I am unique and wonderful and I am amazing. I am good at some things and great at others. I do some things quickly and others faster. I am clever and funny and daring. …I am growing each day in so many ways. So make sure you’re watching because I am really special and you don’t want to miss it.[i]

What counts as ‘special’? Does it involve actually doing something of value? Of course, no-one would want to deny the moral worth of everyone we teach, but the statement on the wall is eerily devoid of any reference to what child might actually do to be deserving of the attribution ‘special’.  It is a tricky subject of course, because all loving parents would understandably see their kids as ‘special’ in the sense of being unique and cherished individuals, just as all good teachers would soon develop a strong sense of the special needs and abilities of each of their students. But the rush to affirm young people for just ‘being you’ regardless of effort or engagement can set up some unrealistic expectations of entitlement regardless of effort or achievement.

It has also spawned some quite silly classroom practices to boot! I have seen a seven-year-old boy sprawled out on a carpeted classroom floor, writing – badly, as might be expected given that writing is done best at desk or table. His teacher explained that he ‘liked lying on the floor’ and she wanted him to feel good about being in her class. The quality of his handwriting, she acknowledged, was regressing, but he was more settled and seemed happier. This, she assured me, was the most important thing. I have watched student teachers congratulate fifteen-year-old students for bringing a biro to class. “Oh, you’ve got a pen – terrific!”  It’s not terrific, in fact – it’s normal for students to have something to write with in class. If having a biro is terrific, then what might we say in response to the invention of the bionic ear, or the back-box flight recorder, or the discovery of the human genome?

It is not that we would want to wait until such momentous events occur to give praise – the point is that praise needs to be differentiated – and even judiciously withheld – in order that it retains its value as an acknowledgement of commendable achievement. Praising kids purely with the intention of raising their self-esteem regardless of the absence of praiseworthy activity is now being shown to be counter-productive in promoting dependency on constant affirmation from others. Unsurprisingly, too, over-praised kids are more likely to see a less patronising parent or teacher (and later, employer) as mean rather than respectful.

The ‘trophy’ generation?

Over-praising and under-performing are often twin-bedfellows – indeed, the latter is all too often an unintentional outcome of the former.  Joel Meares, a Generation Y Australian, reflected somewhat ruefully in the Sydney Morning Herald last year on his experience of being on the receiving end of excessive attention and praise in his early life:

We were raised on a diet of constant reinforcement and told we could do anything. Keen to boost our self-esteem, Mum and Dad sacrificed their weekends to chauffer us from soccer to ballet to drama to Nippers….Our teachers showered us with unjustifiable praise…. In kindergarten I won an award for tying my shoelaces a week later than everyone else; in year 7, I won a ribbon for not finishing a cross-country run.[ii]

The young author, Joel Meares, went on to note how inadequately this prepared him, and his peers, for the complex and at times cut-throat adult world in which he now finds himself. Little wonder, says academic Michael Foley, that individuals like Joel Meares find themselves under-equipped to handle the difficult situations that arise as the ‘rules’ for employability start shifting and a degree is no longer a passport to professional work on a liveable wage. Foley sees the current generation’s belief that they are entitled to accolades for easy success as an effect, at least in part, of our society’s willingness to elevate ‘self-esteem’ as a social good worthy for its own sake, while having no values or principle and as requiring no effort beyond its insistence on positive self-reflection from others. Difficulty, on the other hand, he sees as a contrary imperative that has been overwhelmed by the effects of raising self-esteem:

Difficulty has become repugnant because it denies entitlement, disenchants potential, limits mobility and flexibility, delays gratification, distracts from distraction and demands responsibility, commitment, attention and thought.[iii]

Foley is not alone in commenting negatively on the consequences of elevating self-esteem over actual performance. At a recent graduation ceremony in an American school, Wellesley High School, the keynote speaker teacher departed from the traditional congratulatory rhetoric, telling the assembled graduates that they were neither special nor exceptional, but probably believed they were because they had been “pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, and bubble-wrapped, feted and fawned over”, an effect, he argued, of Americans’ “love of accolades more than genuine achievement”.[iv] This shot across the bows of praise-dependency underlines what journalist Erika Christakis calls “the cheapening effect of making everything special”.[v]  ‘Being special’ becomes a right, not an achievement – to be treated in any other way, regardless of your behavior or performance, becomes unthinkable.

Too much consolation, not enough challenge?

Recent research appears to suggest, at least in part, that the praise-dependency identified overtly at Wellesley High is not only widespread but could be an unintended outcome of the work of ‘consoling’ teachers. In an article published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology entitled “’It’s ok — Not everyone can be good at math’: Instructors with an entity theory comfort (and demotivate) students”[vi] a team of researchers provides evidence from a sample of first year university students that fleshes out the downside of praise-dependency in young people. Importantly, it suggests that well meaning teachers may be aiding and abetting student vulnerability rather than student capability:

[The research] suggests that an educational system focused on accepting weaknesses (as long as one focuses on strengths) is not quite as positive as intended. It may lead to situations in which the forces pushing students to dis-engage from important fields of study are stronger than those encouraging them to persevere through difficulty. Thus, the popular practice today of identifying weaknesses and turning students toward their strengths may be another self-esteem-building strategy gone awry… and one that may contribute to the low numbers of students pursuing math and science.[vii]

There is no doubt that a praised and consoled generation of young people are much more likely to emerge from schools feeling a whole lot better about themselves than the kids who emerged from classrooms in which sarcasm, shaming and negative criticism of children were normal practice. The problem, however, is that today’s young people will have to meet criteria for twenty-first century employability that are all about what they give to the team and the organisation, not what they get in the way of attention and accolades. Praise-dependent young people looking for easy, well-remunerated employment will search in vain in the marketplace. Put simply, those who look to enter paid work with a sense of entitlement but with no little or no supporting evidence of proven capacity for higher order thinking and doing, will founder in our highly competitive labour market.

Employers are already expressing more than a little exasperation with what is being perceived as a pampered generation that is unrealistic then it comes to the demands of well-remunerated work. In a recent comment in the Weekend Business section of a national newspaper, one writer made a scathing attack on Australia’s young adults as “Gen Useless”, urging them to “stop sponging and start scrubbing up for work”.[viii]  While it is unfair to throw a blanket over an entire generation as too indulged to be work-ready, there are certainly concerns that a shrinking global labour market and a strong sense of personal entitlement among today’s youth, when taken together, do not augur well for their future employability.  Put bluntly, employers are much more interested in hiring someone who is a proven collaborator and self-starter than someone who is expecting the comfort of on-going affirmation as well as their own air-conditioned office and leather chair.

What now, my love?

So how might teacher and parents assist much-loved children to be better prepared for an independent and creative future?

As creative economist John Howkins points out, contemporary patterns of work don’t spring from one single imperative or individual. They arise instead from a mix of individuals’ inclinations, relevant processes and products, and the social arrangements in the place where they are located.[ix] In his book, The Creative Economy: How people make money from ideas, he goes on say that the most employable people in creative workplaces are those who embrace the challenges of being part of a dynamic team, both separate and together with others. He says:

When two or more creative people are working in a team, and could not succeed without the team, even to the extent of ‘losing’ their identity in the team, it is still their personal talent and individual contribution that generates the creativity and the product. It holds both ways. If someone who is part of a team is only part of a team, then they are giving nothing of themselves and they cannot be creative.[x]

Creative workers, in short, are most often part of a dynamic process that involves both individual smarts and a capacity to work within and for a high flying and dynamic team with social networks that reached well beyond their own.  The take-home message is that creative and innovative workplaces seek out individuals who are personally highly capable and also welcome and value the opportunity to contribute to dynamic, highly achieving teams.

What makes high-flying possible?

To understand the sort of experiences and environments that make for dynamic or high-flying teams, we need to get beyond any naïve belief in the motivational power of praise alone, or the idea that individuals who feel really positive about themselves can do anything. Instead, we would do better to look at the biological behaviour of other living entities to understand how ‘flocking together’ allows birds to fly higher and exhibit greater scheduling and routing capabilities than each bird can do alone.[xi] The means by which this extra capacity is achieved can tell us a lot about the importance of experiencing the dynamics of a team environment very early in our lives.

Computer simulations of bird objects (boids) such as those developed by computer modelling expert, Richard Seel[xii], tell us about the behavioural principles that allow flocks or swarms to perform with more capacity (e.g. flying higher and faster and avoiding obstacles more easily) than the capacity of any one flock member allows. One of the myths that is exploded in engaging with this scholarship is the idea that there are no rules when it comes to creative ‘high flying’, and indeed, that there should be no rules – that the best way to optimise creativity in young people is just to get out of their way. Computer simulations of flocking demonstrate that there are behavioural rules that allow single biological entities to operate optimally by forming more complex behaviours as a collective.

The behavioural rules do not involve external ‘control’ but they do require very close attention to the behaviours of other ‘flockmates’ in the dynamic environment. In other words, the ‘enhancing’ constraints that make for a sense of collective direction are not imposed by an individual leader but are part of the internal team dynamic.  In a high-flying flock of birds, leading and following are roles that change continuously and seamlessly. All are leaders, all are followers.

Appropriate ‘flocking’ behaviour is generated within ‘local neighbourhoods’ of ‘flockmates’ through the provision of timely information and the capacity to self-manage. The rules for maintaining an optimal ecological assemblage of flockmates can tell us a lot about ‘high flying’ learning environments. Each flockmate is aligned with and responsive to those flockmates in their immediate vicinity, as well as being appropriately separate from those same flockmates. This may come as something of a surprise to those who understand ‘mass collaboration’ as necessarily obliterating or subsuming individual space. In fact, it is best done by respecting and maintaining space.

We learn from this that, while each individual team member needs to be attuned to the needs and interests of their ‘flockmates’ in the common project, team-based student ‘self-management’ functions optimally when it does not interfere with or obstruct others. In Seel’s terms, “too much connectivity…can inhibit emergence…[in that]…diversity is excluded and groupthink is a very likely outcome”.[xiii] This means that, despite the good intentions that often accompany the appointment of a ‘strong’ group leader, the dynamics that flow from this if and when the strong leader ‘takes over’ might prove to be more of a hindrance than a help. Put simply, space invaders do not help to build high flyers. There are lessons here both for hovering parents and consoling teachers.

A further important point is that disciplined behaviour is at the heart of high-flying, not free-wheeling individuality. While ‘boid’ research works against our commonly accepted notions of ‘strong leadership’, it also reminds us that ‘anything goes’ is not a practical alternative for building a creativity-enhancing learning environment.  The space of optimal ecological assemblage is not a space of anarchy – it works precisely against destructively unpredictable conduct on the part of individual flockmates. The necessary ‘randomness’ is always systematic, scanning for and reporting information of potential value – it is patterned, not chaotic.

Some applications of work has already been to apply these principles derived from non-human biological ‘teams’ to human teams at work within organisations. According to management expert, Ken Thompson, the principle of “systemic randomness”[xiv] in bio-team behaviour can and should be applied to organisational teams, by encouraging individuals within them to be systematically involved in random interactivity, constantly on the look out for something ‘interesting’ pertaining to their shared projects and sharing it in a timely way within their neighbourhood of flockmates. So, while humans are of course, much more complex in their social arrangements than bird colonies, we now understand that the principle of paying close attention to the needs and capacities of ‘flockmates’ is much more valuable to a productive work team, and a productive organisation, than self-absorption and praise-dependency.

This is an important principle and one that I have experienced as highly valuable in my own work. Without my ‘flockmates’, who once worked beside me in Brisbane but went on to jobs in Canada, the UK and Singapore, none of us could have had the success we continue to enjoy. For more than decade now we have all stayed on the lookout for material that we think might serve the interests of other members of the team, and together have been able to move faster and higher, in terms of our learning, than any one of us could alone. We did not pay attention to every gust of opinion that came our way, but we paid very close attention to the needs and capacities of our flockmates.

Living the rules

Children who come to crave praise for themselves alone – who are constantly in need of the affirming attention of their teachers, their parents and their peers, will struggle when it comes to having the capacity and the disposition to pay close and prolonged attention to others, whether in the home, the classroom or the workplace.  But there are ways to build dynamic team capacity in young people by making explicit the ‘rules’ that apply to behaviours that pertain in high-flying learning environments. Four of these rules are set out below:

*Connectivity with diversity – an environment in which it is important for young people to be ‘plugged into’ and mindful of a ‘local neighbourhood’ and a larger world of potential team members with similar interests or passions – one that allows individuals to pursue their passions and to contribute to fast-moving flows of information on behalf of others and themselves.

*Co-invention/co-creation with separation – an environment in which the nature, purpose and rules of self-management are understood and internalised, so that young people can be both separate from, and attentive to, those they work with and rely on for their ‘high flying’ outcomes. The products of learning are authentic productions of the synergies that exist between the individual and the team, not merely what is ‘required’ by external others.

*Leading and following – an environment in which all team members share collective responsibility for timely and appropriate leadership, looking over the horizon for relevant information for sharing with others, while at the same time following the ‘steering’ of those close by, i.e. exercising ‘three dimensional’ attention about the local and global, the present and the future.

*‘Enhancing’ constraints and removal of inhibitors – an environment that minimises ‘command-and-control’ while providing scaffolded opportunities for members to conduct themselves in ways that optimise team (and thereby their own) performance. It is an environment in which there are, as Paul Tosey puts it, “good constraints to action”.[xv]

The pleasure of the rigour

Among the many ‘good constraints to action’ that we could identify in the home or the school, I argue, is a culture of differentiated praise. There is a great deal of investment at the moment, financially and pedagogically, in positivity and happiness as the driver of student performance. While a positive outlook is certainly desirable in our young people, it should not be at the expense of a capacity for scepticism and radical doubt. The Mathematics teacher who had the good fortune to teach both Bill Gates and Mark Zukerberg as undergraduates noted that they shared the same sort of disposition to learning – they were both keen and sceptical, eager to engage yet constantly questioning mathematical processes and formulae. In a very complex world in which there is so much untrustworthy data for young people to negotiate (not just lies and mis-information but misleading aggregates), positivity on its own is insufficient for meaningful engagement in the social world. Put bluntly, Pollyanna may beat the cynic in the employability takes, but the capacity for doubt remains the basis of powerful thinking and higher productivity. Steve Jobs provided a classic example of the importance of scepticism when, on being told by his team that they could not make their i-Phone any smaller, immediately ‘tested’ their thesis by dropping the prototype into a bowl of water. When bubbles rose to the surface, he pointed out that there must be air within. “Try again”, he said.[xvi]

Those who value easy success and the compliments that come with it are unlikely to experience in their lives the pleasure of the rigour of high order reasoning, because they come to need reassurance early and often, and are likely not to persist in the face of rigorous demands. ‘Tell me I’m wonderful and give an A’ is not the logic that underpins success in Silicone Valley or any other productive 21st century environment. Rather, it is the capacity to be self-managing, self-critical and collaborative, to stay in the grey of ‘not yet’ in order to reach for something truly exceptional.  Young people who are practised in paying close attention to those around them, those who have a disposition to contribute their well-developed skills and capacities for the better functioning of the team, are those who are likely to live, learn and earn well, even in these tough economic times. When praise comes their way – as it will – it will be well-earned. They’ll get it, but they won’t be dependent on it. They’ll be too busy getting on with their next high-flying venture!


[i] My thanks to the teacher (name withheld) who provided me with this photo after a presentation I made to primary school teachers in Queensland in 2011.

[ii] Meares, J. (2011). Reality Bites, Sydney Morning Herald Good Weekend Magazine, November, page 13.

[iii] Foley, M. (2010). The Age of Absurdity: Why modern life makes it hard to be happy. London: Simon and Schuster.

[iv] Christakis, E. (2012). Should we stop telling our kids that they’re special? http://ideas.time.com/2012/06/12/should-we-stop-telling-our-kids-that-theyre-special/#ixzz25ZttBPAs, accessed 3 October.

[v] Ibid, page 1.

[vi] Rattan, A., Good, C. and Dweck, C. (2012) “It’s ok — Not everyone can be good at math”: Instructors with an entity theory comfort (and demotivate) students, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, in press.

[vii] Ibid, page 6.

[viii] Padley, M. (2012) Gen Useless: Stop sponging and scrub up for work. Weekend Business, The Sydney Morning Herald (Weekend Edition), October 6-7, page 11.

[ix] Howkins, D. (2001) The Creative Economy: How people make money from ideas. London: Penguin, p.7.

[x] ibid.

[xi] Reynolds, C (1987). Flocks, herds, and schools: A distributed behavioral model. Computer Graphics, 21(4), 25-34. and also (nd). Boids: Background and update. Retrieved 27 April, 2007, from http://www.red3d.com/cwr/boids/

[xii] Seel, R. (2006) Emergence in Organisations – http://www.new-paradigm.co.uk/emergence-2.htm, accessed ….

[xiii] Seel, R. (2006) Emergence in Organisations – http://www.new-paradigm.co.uk/emergence-2.htm, p.3

[xiv] Thompson, K. (2006). Enhance team performance by consistent individual behaviour. Retrieved 27 April, 2007, from http://www.bioteams.com/2006/03/22/enhance_team_performance.html, op cit, p.3.

[xv] Tosey, P. (2006). Interfering with the interference: An emergent perspective on creativty in higher education. In N. Jackson, M. Oliver, M. Shaw & J. Wisdom (Eds.), Developing creativity in higher education: An imaginative curriculum,London: Routledge, op cit, p.33.

[xvi] Akindoyeni, F. (2012) Keynote Address, Canberra iLead Conference, Hyatt Hotel, Canberra, 11 May.

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