February 29, 2008 at 07:10 PM · I believe that a good teacher must praise the student. What do you think?

Enough of this neo-Darwinian bleakness and be-mean-to-keep-em-keen. How about a bit of good old fashioned sunny disposition? Whatever did happen to that? You know, red red robins hopping along up the garden path are most wise creatures....they've seen the benefits of a positive outlook.

This thread is an olive branch. Please forgive my rant on the teach-yourself topic.

Replies (21)

February 29, 2008 at 07:24 PM · Jon, we have had a flock of robins hanging outside in the pine trees all week. All they do is fight with the other birds! Grouchy little things!

I try to be specific when I praise something the student did well. I don't know if this makes me a good teacher or not. Most of them show up every week...Happy Practicing!

February 29, 2008 at 07:39 PM · A parenting expert that I admire talks about "descriptive praise." It's the only kind of praise that is truly constructive: specific praise for something well-done. I think it's a great idea for a teacher to be generous with descriptive praise. One can get very creative with this, "Your tenths were very much in tune." Then you can add, "Now let's work on how you're going to get them 20 metronome notches faster..."

Lying to a student with false praise is never a recommended strategy.

February 29, 2008 at 09:59 PM · My New Year's resolution this year as every year is to do a better job showing appreciation and to be sure to give praise where it is due. Praise works magic for both the giver and the recipient.

As a Jr. college biology teacher, I try to cultivate the habit of looking for unique gifts in each of my students and then communicating these as specifically as I can to my students. This type of praise shows the student that you have faith in their ability to learn. My students have often failed to thrive in high school or other colleges and I have found that their self-confidence can be a bit shaky. Their ability to persist through an entire semester is related to their assessment of the chances they are up to doing the work. A related skill is to be sensitive to the efforts students are making and then to acknowledge and show appreciation for their work. It is amazing what efforts students will make for a teacher who believes in them.

The violin student/teacher relationship is a very special one. The student must be able to trust that the feedback the teacher gives is true and honest. They need to know without a doubt that the teacher has faith in their ability to do what they are asking for. In my experience, the sugar-coating of criticism is counter to the development of the trust. Students often find it insulting as well. I have seen students take really tough criticism from their beloved teacher positively. They seem to know that the teacher wouldn't be expending this amount of energy on them if they were not worth it.

February 29, 2008 at 10:04 PM · I actually agreed with your rant, Jon. I think the other three posters are right on about the value of specific praise for a specific job well-done.

I was noticing last night how easy it is to criticize one's family members--especially kids and/or spouse. It requires almost no thought or effort at all. But if one does make the effort, one can find something constructive to say. And it's the effort that makes all the difference. Because it changes your habit of mind and way of thinking. If you can find something constructive to say about and to your kid who has really been getting on your nerves, your nerves benefit too.

I'm wondering if it's possible to call a moratorium on discussions of "sugar-coating" or "lying" as related to praise. Aren't both of those really something of a straw man? When is the last time anyone actually advocated doing either of those?

February 29, 2008 at 11:04 PM · Jon,

I probably was too harsh with my comment on the other thread. Olive branch accepted.

My teacher is very reserved about praise so when she does give me a pat on the back, it is very special. However, I never leave a lesson without her saying something positive and encouraging. An example would be, "We got a lot done today". Works for me.

March 1, 2008 at 04:06 AM · My teacher often praises me for the posture of my left hand and fingers. And yes, I do recognise that things are going rather well in the left hand department, in fact I am sometimes surprised at how fast I can pick up new fingerings and move up to higher speed while eliminating the glitches on the way.

However, I am not at all satisfied with my bowing and I am always hoping for specific hints, tips, tricks from my teacher how to improve, but at this stage all she says is "yes, this is difficult, but your posture is good, so don't worry, it will come to you over time".

While I appreciate this reassuring feedback, I could handle a lot more specific criticism, but my teacher has plenty of experience teaching adults who started as adults, so I am confident that she knows what she is doing and I trust that she will intervene if and when I am about to risk forming any bad habits.

March 1, 2008 at 04:16 AM · My apologies if I offended anyone! I did not mean to suggest that anyone was advocating the "sugar coating" of criticism. I brought it up as a cautionary note. The "first say something nice" is a lovely rule of thumb as long as the complement is sincere and appropriate.

In my son's lesson today he played through the Paganini Caprice No. 2. Afterward, his beloved teacher said, "Alright. Not bad... Not bad. Let's look at a few things here." His "something good" was honest and not overstated. It indicated he was pleased with the work my son had done, but that it was just a start and he was ready to get down to work.

March 1, 2008 at 05:28 AM · A friend of mine works for Apple and he once told me that the phrase "this doesn't suck" is apple employee speak for praise :-)

March 1, 2008 at 07:09 AM · I don’t know about you, but I do notice that, with some exceptions, people around me don’t praise nearly enough. Personally I can’t complain, as I actually do receive a lot of praises on daily basis, most from my husband, often from friends and colleagues. We can have more though.

When I heard comments like “He always butters you up!” or worse, “She is so sycophantic!”, I wonder what was going on in these people’s mind? Why is it not becoming to praise someone too readily in North America? When you see something good or beautiful, wouldn’t it be more natural to express it than not? What is there to prevent you to openly express appreciation of someone for being the way they are or doing something beautiful? It’s actually a very interesting question to explore.

The magical benefits of positive reinforcement is of course very well known, and seriously, books written by dolphin and dog trainers on application of this principle can be quite convincing.

One problem when it comes to adults is that some of us are not good recipients of even the most sincere praise. A co-worker once told me she always got a bit nervous when people start to praise her, as she always feared that in doing so they wanted something from her. I praised her when praise was due regardless, but I could tell she didn’t always take it well.

Some of us only hear the good things other people say, and others always wait for the ‘but’ and what’s followed from that.

Then there’s the expectation we have of our teachers. I had received some most memorable praises from the violin or philosophy teachers from whom I expected nothing but criticism. One of them was a notoriously bad tempered violinist. I had been forewarned before I went to see him. So when he started to criticise, I was smiling and quietly chuckled to myself – “Ha! They were so right about this grumpy man!” I took notes and worked with him without any resistance. In the end, he gave me some really good advices and praised me earnestly. I still remember everything he said to me that day.

March 1, 2008 at 01:16 PM · Jennifer, I apologize too. It was about me, not you. I think I've heard too many cautionary notes, too many buts over the years, and sometimes I get cranky about that. Being "careful" is not always good for the music.

I enjoy reading your thoughtful and generous comments as a music parent and I'd like to praise them :-) I learn a lot from you.

March 1, 2008 at 04:11 PM · Yixi, I think people in America might shy away from praises due to a trace of puritanism that has been passed on to us from the start of colonization. Perhaps?

The saying goes "you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar" comes to mind. In a group class setting I find it very helpful to avoid harsh criticisms of students as it seems to spiral into a cycle of negativity. If I have one student who won't stop being disruptive I find that if I compliment the student next to him for being "focused" then it has an effect on the whole class. Really all students want is to please us and hear good things from us and in doing so we will draw the best from them.

For private students and family members I think it is a case by case scenario. There should be a balance of positive feedback and sincere criticism and each person needs a different dose of either.

March 1, 2008 at 09:20 PM · One of my former teachers explained that he hardly gives out praise. But if he doesn't complain about something you're doing, you're doing it right (and he nitpicks EVERYTHING, so it's actually easy to tell what's good)

March 2, 2008 at 12:59 AM · Marina, Puritanism could be one reason. It’s definitely something cultural-specific. I don’t know how to properly translate the expression for instance “flatters vs. non-flatters” into Chinese, not because Chinese people don’t understand the notion of flatter, but to categorize people in such term is pretty novel to the Chinese as far as I can see. This may also be related to the sentiment that some people don’t want to be seen as being nice, as though you are either nice (and boring) or nasty (but brilliant) -- a very problematic dichotomy but sometimes assumed.

March 2, 2008 at 12:53 AM · I don't know... I like being praised by my boss and my teachers. I also have a personal trainer who from time to time says, "Howard, you're REALLY getting strong!" Sometimes he's sincere, sometimes I get the feeling he's just trying to keep me motivated. I don't care either way since the praise never fails to reenergize me for more work.

Having observed this in myself, and knowing how much more "in the moment" kids are, I use a large amount of praise to keep them motivated and so that they understand that we are making progress, even if it's seemingly minimal at times. I use it as a way of saying, "it's ok, kid, we're on track, no problem and here's what to do."

March 2, 2008 at 01:16 AM · Yixi,

I was always under the impression that chinese families and chinese mothers in particular don't do a lot of praising of their children compared to american families. This is my impression from what I've seen of my chinese students and also from a long relationship I had with a brilliant chinese violinist. Whenever I mentioned to her parents how nicely she played or how beautiful she was or basically anything nice about her, her mother would say things like, "no, she lazy, not work hard enough" or words to that effect. How does that differ from Americans' "allergy to praise?" Just wondering what you think- seems to me the two aversions are different somehow, but I'm not quite sure how.

March 2, 2008 at 02:34 AM · Howard, your observation of the Chinese parents’ behaviour towards their children is accurate. The idea behind this is that spoiling or indulging your child is one of the most irresponsible things a parent can do to his/her child and modesty (about oneself and one’s children) is the appropriate social behaviour. So as a child, we don’t expect a lot of praises from our own parents openly, but 'good boy/girl' is frequently expressed behind the door, so to speak. Also, we receive them from other grown-ups, and we love to see the sparkles in our parents when this happens. We as kids understand that our parents are proud of us and that’s more important in many cases then hearing them saying ‘I love you’, which is another thing rarely if ever uttered by our parents. (They’d say we like you in most cases). But when it comes to adults, it is my experience that we give and receive elaborate compliments to each other a lot more often in both formal and non-formal occasions than the folks here in North America do. It’s my guess that perhaps praise serves well in a shame-based society such as China in that it has ‘cash value’ in social exchange. If you can’t respect someone too much, then you can’t be too flattering.

Personally, I praise people because the fear that I might die regretting I didn’t get the chance to praise someone I really want to and should. Hey, life is so unpredictable that I don’t even by green bananas.

March 2, 2008 at 03:01 PM · Thanks, Yixi, that was very interesting. I especially liked the part at the end about praising people when you can because you never know what's going to happen tomorrow.

By the way, I never buy green bananas anyway because they never ripen quite right... :)

March 2, 2008 at 04:55 PM · I have often heard Joanne Bath, Suzuki pedagogue at Eastern Carolina University say, "No child was ever spoiled by too much praise." I have to agree. In fact it can be used to increase and encourage many lovely traits in a child. I used to often tell my youngest child that he was a gentle boy. I love this characteristic in him. He has come to be proud of his gentleness and I am sure that my recognizing and praising this trait has encouraged him to continue to be thoughtful, sweet and kind even as he has grown into a teen.

The other thing Joanne Bath had to say on this subject was that we often do not recognize or praise adults for their efforts. She said "Imagine if you made a special meal for a group of friends and nobody said it was good!"

I think we feel adults have already "arrived" and are largely finished and so praise is irrelevant. I find it more natural to praise children and students over adults, but it really is important for all of us.

March 2, 2008 at 09:16 PM · I find people are hard on themselves tend not to be praisers. To them, it's like no matter how well things have been done, they've seen better. I have a soft spot for people like that.

March 2, 2008 at 10:41 PM · Greetings,

sorry I`m too shagged to go back and check whether the point has already been raise din this interesitng discussion ad nauseam.

For me, praise is a way of thinking about human relations and working together. How i apply this idea in elementary schools is by reversing the traditional aproach to teachign which occurs across most cultures in which the teacher is reactive and slpas down studnets who do something `bad.` Often when I se ethis done I think back to when I wa sthat age and how confused I was by what was and wasn`t `good.` and how easily I was hurt by adults who thought they were doign a good job of `educating` me.

The altenrative I adopt and train teahcers to adopt is to work proactively and identify clearly to students anything that is impresisve, good or welcome. I work in a system where this is quite easy sicne lessons are often followed by a kira kira time in which both teahcer and studnets can comment freely on anything that happened in the lesson. Working with a Japanese teacher I will often pick up the troubled or simply `not ready to be stuffed full of facts because life is still beautiful` kids with snot running out of eevry orrifce and tell them soemthign they did in the lesson that was really cool. It might be soemthing as simple as picking up somethign that fell oin the floor.



March 2, 2008 at 11:31 PM · I agree with the comments about being specific with praise and not sugar-coating. Also, I think its important to set reasonable goals and on the occasions they are not met, provide a clear framework that can improve the odds for success. Instead of ending up in a vicious cycle of the student not meeting expectations and the teacher becoming increasingly exasperated and impatient, it may be necessary to observe how a student practices, what exactly they retain from your teaching at the lesson and how they translate it into action. With careful and attentive guidance and your helping them develop the ability to analyze and correct their problems, issues of false or undeserved praise or constant nagging criticism can fall by the wayside. Instead the student becomes focused on the means to achieve something better, and knows what that "better" is and praise after well done work will be like icing on the cake because they will know that they really did the right kind of work to present the music more skillfully and more confidently. Of course, some students need much more encouragement and guidance than others but I try as often as possible to get them to focus on what and how to do something and the succeeding at that is often its own reward. With such success, praise given in acknowledgment of and as a result of their hard work means much more than praise given when the effort and understanding isn't really that strong or consistent.

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