Teaching Through Praise

At the end of every class I teach, I hand out an evaluation form. The form is my chance to find out if I’ve met the expectations of the class. Over the years I’ve 4274463847_b8a00c8bbbbeen running training programs, a lot of interesting information has come my way. I’ve changed content, approach, and added suggested topics, all based on evals. Occasionally, a comment has made me wonder what would possess someone to think of the comment written on the evaluation.

Adults learn differently from kids. Adults need to hear information more often, in different ways, in order to remember it longer. The word “educate” comes from the Latin educare and it means to pull out of, not to stuff into. Most people in the training sessions learn a lot from sharing information with people who work in similar business environments. Maybe even more than from me.

From me, they need to hear a practical application, examples that resonate with their experience, and reinforcement. If I tell a participant they are “wrong” or their writing “isn’t up to standards” in a training class, they won’t hear anything else I say. Their mind will be caught in the sticky spider web of having been shamed in front of a whole class.

My classes are short–one or two days. I can’t teach someone how to write in that time, or how to do presentations. But I can give them tools to use that will make them a better writer or presenter over time. And one way I do it is to find something to praise in every piece the participant reads or demonstrates in a presentation. By praising them for something they are doing well, it is more likely they will continue to do it. That alone will make them a better writer or presenter, and that’s my goal. I’m not a magician, just a trainer.

dominatrix_2But every now and then, I get a comment on the evaluation form that baffles me. Today I read, “I didn’t really need this class for more than a review of what I already know, but your laxity in correcting others disappointed me.”  A few months ago, I got the more enigmatic,”You did not criticize other people’s work strongly enough.” I’m still not sure what this was supposed to teach me–would they be happier if I appeared in class in black leathers and a whip?

Instead of planning how to be tougher, I thought, “What was that person’s childhood like? Is s/he a manager? Do they slap their co-workers with their remarks?” Children of alcoholic parents often grow up to be alcoholics because drinking created power in their home. What will these managers train their direct reports to be? Praise is a powerful teaching tool. And it works. I’ll keep using it.

Quinn McDonald is a trainer who teaches business writing and creative work. She knows the Inner Critic thrives on shame and has chosen to promote the Inner Heroes instead.

27 thoughts on “Teaching Through Praise

  1. Since when, in a class, is it someone else’s business to look at someone else’s paper and critique? Didn’t we learn in the first grade to keep our eyes on our own work? It’s MY work that needs help in the form of constructive criticism and praise for the directions that are correct. It’s very childish to want to see others punished or corrected when the goal is learning. I hope that most of the time you get adults in your classes instead of overgrown children.

    • Many businesses are staffed by employees who are unhappy. In an open-enrollment class, you get a variety of people who feel confident, threatened, scared, angry–and you absolutely never know what is going to happen. Most of the time, it’s fun.

  2. I completely agree, specific praise is the most powerful tool a teacher has, and that extends to anyone who is trying to help someone improve their performance. And if you don’t build up credit through specific praise you can’t offer a critique to redirect efforts.

    I love reading evaluations that I get as they inform my work for the future however the ones that come from the person who has the “Go on, make me enjoy this, I’ve decided already that I won’t.” are always fascinating. I watched a student recently as he enjoyed himself working with his peers, responded to positive feedback and visibly improved his presentation skills. Yet he still managed to say he learned nothing and didn’t enjoy it at all.

    Poor contrary kid, maybe he’s in training to atend one of your classes?

    • I’m sure I’ll see him in one of my classes! You are right about the example. In some businesses, when there is training as punishment, the participants are responsible for improving or suffering consequences. In that case, it is to their advantage to say they learned nothing, to avoid responsibility. Ahhh, the joy of learning.

  3. I love open communication. I believe when a teacher communicates from the get go that this is their teaching style and they don’t believe tearing people down is a good way to teach lessons, then there is an understanding among the class that negativity is not well tolerated. There will always be those damaged ones that think they know best, but the overall consensus will be a bit more positive.

  4. Quinn – Personally, I think your approach of finding something to praise is much better than finding something to criticize. I completely agree that, “By praising them for something they are doing well, it is more likely they will continue to do it.” The only other thing that pops into my head is if there would be a way that you could walk around and speak to each student individually in the class, to give them some constructive pointers? With 50 students, that may not be a possibility.

    • With 25 students, I can’t do it–we have 113 pages of material, 5 DVDs, 1 set of YouTube videos and tons of exercises. In my business writing class, which are generally smaller, I can give individual help. But I’m a firm believer in that sentence you quoted and I am sticking with it.

  5. Oh lordy. There is another poem lurking in this column somewhere. Isn’t it interesting that the line that resonated most was:

    “What was that person’s childhood like? Is s/he a manager? Do they slap their co-workers with their remarks?” Children of alcoholic parents often grow up to be alcoholics because drinking created power in their home.”

    The same holds true for abusers, physical or not. Power is gained through imposing physical or mental control. Sarcasm and slaps hold the same power to hurt and damage, but the effects of non-physical attacks last longer. Much longer.

    As a manager I always had to think carefully about how and when to praise people for their efforts, even if the results had been less than optimal. But the whip-crack sarcastic rejoinder seemed to leap out all on its own with no conscious volition. Still does occasionally, although now there is more control.

  6. Having just completed reading Brene Brown’s latest book on shame and vulnerability, this post jumped off the page/screen at me. I was in the fifth grade when a teacher severely criticized a tree I was drawing. As much as I love art, the effects of that moment, in some way, defined me as “not an artist.” So please continue to teach to the strengths of your students. Who knows? I may show up in your classroom one day and I will need tender words, gentle encouragement, and kind support.

    • The shame approach is destructive. I don’t think it teaches anything at all. Had you asked for help or a critique (As Pete might) that would have been different. A lot of soul is lost by this kind of harsh treatment.

  7. As you say, there are lots of ways to learn. I understand those comments — for me, praise from a teacher is not helpful, and I’d prefer to learn where something has started to go wrong, but I don’t yet have the experience to see it.

    • Yep, me too. That’s most helpful for me–but that really is in a long-term class. Fifty people for two days with an ambitious curriculum and I’m sticking to what’s on the agenda. It’s the problem with all teaching–it’s hard to give everyone exactly the level of help they need. I also don’t know these people at all, and will spend two days with them.

    • Pete;

      But really – your intellect and self confidence allow you to see criticism as course correction instead of soul searing invalidation of everything you are or have ever done. I am fairly certain that your inner critic spends its time cowering in a corner rather than having to face your searing counter-scorn at its fumbling attempts to undermine your abilities. 🙂

  8. Hi Quinn, I wanted to say that I love your book Raw Art Journaling as well as your blog – so thank you!! As for the feedback you’ve received… I think it’s probably a reflection of those people’s need for a critique of their writing – and as Kaisa pointed out, probably a wish on their part to have other people’s works “fairly” critiqued as well. Perhaps they were confused about the core expectations of your class? Personally I love your approach! It’s so easy to get caught up in the negativity of life – especially in a work environment (I do that a lot to myself!! – what did I do wrong instead of what did I do right?). I find it refreshing to hear someone is actively seeking to praise as a way of affirming a person’s abilities! I am sure the majority of your students truly appreciate that!

    • Thanks, Becky, and thanks so much for buying the book. Interesting how the word “fair” comes up. I do treat people fairly–everyone get told what they are doing well. I correct mistakes that the exercises focus on, but do not stray into other areas. Nor do I pronounce someone’s writing “wonderful” or “perfect.” I am very specific for corrections and praise. “That’s a good use of open-ended questions” rather than, “that’s a great communication”. I insist we start class on time and that breaks don’t last longer than they should. I call on everyone the same amount of times. I think it’s also an expectation that their former identity and status will be kept and acknowledged in class. Supervisors often want to boss around the lower level workers, although in my classroom everyone is unemployed and looking for re-training.

  9. I’m just guessing here, but maybe what these commentators really meant was that they wanted to be pushed a little harder. They just either don’t realise it or don’t know how to say it in a nicer, more constructive way. Or maybe it simply felt unfair to them that you didn’t point out obvious flaws in other people’s work. You know, ‘others got more praise than what they deserved and my skills got evaluated in the same way though I’m more skilled (meaning I made fewer mistakes)’ kind of thinking. I confess, I sometimes feel like that and it makes me feel even more down that I catch myself thinking like that :/ But I know that it’s just me and my thoughts causing pain to me. Though I might need to remind myself about that when it happens.

    • Yes, I see what you mean. And I also see that you know this is about your inner critic telling you that you aren’t good enough through comparison. One of the realities of these classes I teach is the huge variety of skills, work experience, interpretations and job history. Because I am preparing people who have lost their jobs for retraining, my class may have engineers with 30-year work experience, temp office workers who are 22, and everything in between. It’s a mixed environment for sure. And I made myself a few rules. When I’m teaching customer service or ethics, I will not correct grammar mistakes, because that singles out one person for criticism. A lot of the “punishment lovers” also try to take over my class, restating what I say and adding their opinion, because they are used to being a boss and giving orders. It’s a real balance trick, sometimes.

      • I know what you mean with the balance trick. I teach tai chi weekly and it is hard work to find a balance between different practitioners when I have in the same class someone who is really athletic and fit with someone who can, due to age, barely stand on one leg for a second in the beginning. It’s not that difficult to give them individual advice and encouragement but what is sometimes difficult is to keep the lessons interesting and inspiring for everyone. What I keep in mind is that we humans can only concentrate on one thing at a time when we are learning something. In tai chi it maybe the left hand, in your lessons ethics. There’s no point in minding all the ten thousand things all at once. It is so easy to loose the goal if you start to mix things when you’re practicing them.

        I don’t often run into practitioners who try to take over the class, but what I run into constantly is negative talk. ‘I’ll never learn this.’ ‘This is impossible.’ ‘I wonder if I’m ever able to learn this.’ That’s disruptive too as if it’s even only one practitioner saying something like that, I can see the thought spreading from mind to mind. It can be like a bush fire. That’s why I have made it my point not to teach only the movements etc. but to teach the practitioners to stay in the moment, to instantly let go if they make a mistake and not to dwell on them. To reflect instead of clinging on. It makes me feel so proud of them when I see them succeed in turning their inner critic off, even for a moment. 🙂

        • That must be a powerful class. You really point to the heart of the problem when you say, “I can see the thought spreading from mind to mind,” which is a huge danger. There is a reason it’s called “practice.” Which I often mutter to myself when I mess up–in anything. I wish I could take yur T’ai Chi class. It’s a light in the dark of the world.

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