Teachers warned that praise can make pupils complacent


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The Independent Online

Teachers who lavish praise on pupils are doing them a disservice, according to a study published today.

It can be counter-productive and is more likely to lead to poorly performing pupils becoming complacent, rather than encouraging them to do better in class, says the report from researchers at Durham University. In fact, the report adds, getting angry with children can act as more of a spur to improve their performance.

“For low-attaining pupils, praise ... meant to be encouraging and protective can actually convey a message of low expectations,” it says. “The evidence shows children whose failure generates sympathy are more likely to attribute it to a lack of ability than those who are presented with anger.”

The finding comes in a report, What Makes Great Teaching, commissioned by the Sutton Trust education charity. It recommends the best – and outlines the worst – teaching methods for securing improvements from pupils.

Controversially, grouping students by ability is also reported to make very little difference to outcomes, regardless of whether it is done by putting pupils in different classes or by teaching them in ability groups in one class. “It can result in teaching failing to accommodate different needs within an ability group and over-playing the differences between groups – going too fast with the high-ability groups and too slow with the low,” says the report.

Just a month ago, details were leaked of a government plan to coerce schools into “setting” (teaching children in different ability groups). Schools would be denied an “outstanding” ranking by education watchdog Ofsted if they refused to adopt the practice. However, the plan was dropped after it met with hostility from heads and teachers, who said they should be free to decide how best to run their schools.

Instead, the recipe for successful teaching is simple, says the report. First, it is subject knowledge: “Teachers with strong knowledge and understanding of their subject make a greater impact on students’ learning”. Second, it is the quality of instruction, including “effective questioning and the use of assessment by pupils”.