May 03, 2007

Negative Feedback

Paul Rowe offers an interesting look at what may be the root of Taiwanese students' quietness in the classroom in this letter to the Taipei Times from April 17th.

Taipei Times - archives:

The majority of students perceive themselves as unsuccessful. Even the student who gets the second highest grades in the class is disappointed. Second place is not best. Even the highest scorer is sometimes not satisfied because 99 percent is not 100 percent. Constant testing and the resulting negative feedback explain why Taiwanese students are silent in class. Throughout their schooling, students are pounded with negative feedback.

He goes on to suggest that the solution is to provide students with copious amounts of praise. In his TalkFest experiment, 7 months of praise produced positive results within a group of 7th and 8th graders in Hualien, when they were given the opportunity to practice their English for five minutes 1-on-1 with a foreign teacher.

I agree that foreign teachers who offer their students even small amounts of positive reinforcement are often filling a void. Recently I have been working on a similar problem with my elementary students. In the large chain school where I taught for 6 years before coming to my senses, students were rewarded each lesson with reward cards of various denomination which could be traded in for anything from paper cups for the water fountain (10 cards) to erasers, pencil boxes, & yo-yos up to large stuffed animals (2000 cards). We bribed the kids to open their mouths in class by giving them ten cards for answering a question here, 20 cards for winning a game there. One teacher who almost lasted a year at the school once gave out about 500 cards per student in one of her classes just to keep them quiet. The system produced students who could answer the question "How are you?" in .375 seconds. Anything to get the card.

In my new school, we debated whether to give away toys or reward cards at all. The reward cards are just one more bit of book keeping to keep up with, and giving toys away, we decided, would distract our students from the reason they come to English class. (No, not "My mom makes me come." The other reason: presumably "to learn English.") We decided against such frivolity.

My instincts were reinforced when I picked up a copy of David Paul's Teaching English to Children in Asia. Paul lists a number of reasons why rewards don't work in the classroom. Namely, they're shallow, divisive, they weaken students peripheral learning and make them less likely to take risks if they are focused only on the accumulation of artificial wealth. The kids aren't supposed to come to school for dime store toys, anyway, they're supposed to come and learn something.

I mention toys and prizes and rewards because they are discussed in Chapter 8 with praise. Here are the bullet points on the Problems with Praise, roughly paraphrased:
  • Praise leads to less risk taking--students want to be praised and don't want to be criticized, so they won't answer questions if they won't hear "Well done!"
  • Praise increases dependency--kids focus on the teacher's reaction, rather than learning the task at hand.
  • Praise increases insecurity--telling a student "good job" increases pressure to live up to the assessment, and the possibility of not living up to your expectations breeds insecurity.
  • Praise can weaken a child's ability to communicate--kids become self-conscious of how they're doing in a conversation because they constantly wait to hear whether or not they've constructed a sentence properly and will wait for a "Very Good" before moving on.
  • Praise divides the class--kids who don't get as much as their classmates see themselves as inferior, and after awhile, become so.
Now, let's hear everyone say "YOU THINK TOO MUCH!" All together now! Good.

A class entirely devoid of praise seems rather extreme. Every day I see kids who get zero praise all day long and it breaks my heart. All I want to do is to sit them down and tell them that they are valuable individuals rather than soul-less automatons. But, if you think that fighting City Hall is tough, try going up against 5,000 years of Chinese culture.

So, if not praise, what? The author suggests that encouraging words "directed at the work itself, rather than the child" are better at getting students more involved in learning for learning's sake. Instead of saying "Way to go, dude!" when the student offers "I have two brothers," reply with something like, "You have two brothers, huh? That's great, what are their names?" thereby extending the exercise rather than ending it at the correct answer.

I'm not sure how well this works yet, as I keep falling into the old trap of saying "Alright, Gimme Five!" These things take time to learn.

1 comment:

excommunication said...

I just want to tell you how much I appreciate this post. I still remember being told by a friend that I was "the most negative person she's ever met," and that was after my casual mentioning of how worried I was about not getting into any grad school. After 10 years in the U.S., though, I see her point. Ya, it's hard to fight against 5000 years of "Chinese culture" in Taiwan. Thanks for making the effort!