How Criticism Trumps Praise




A succinct truth about society, according to senior Eva Hernandez: We have become accustomed to praise.

“If you look at the way we interact with other people, a lot of the times, if we walk up to other people, the first thing after you say ‘Hi,’ is ‘I like your shirt,’” she said. “It’s just random praise, all the time, which is nice, but it definitely makes you more accustomed to praise.”

Delaney WeberCriticism, however, is a different ball game. Unlike praise, which can be offered without a second glance, criticism must be cautiously presented, so that others don’t take offense. Because of criticism’s very nature as a corrective tool, it may often be interpreted as condescension or personal attack “when it’s really not,” according to Hernandez.

Although few enjoy receiving criticism, Hernandez said criticism is absolutely necessary for improvement. “If (teachers) are constructively criticizing you, you grow as a person because you learn to accept it. You maturely figure out what you’re doing wrong, and figure if the criticism is founded, and you learn to accept it. You don’t throw a fit and cry about it,” she said. “I would rather hear criticism on what I need to improve than empty praise. If it’s warranted, there should probably be more constructive criticism than unwarranted praise.”

The sentiments Hernandez has voiced are not hers alone. Psychologist K. Anders Ericsson became renowned for his 2007 study showing that 10,000 hours of intense practice are required to become an expert. But in the same study, he wrote, “The development of expertise requires coaches who are capable of giving constructive, even painful, feedback. Real experts are extremely motivated students who seek out such feedback.”

In 2005, a group of researchers studied a group of 31 highly effective teachers (who were evaluated on number of students moving up a level) in low-performing schools in Los Angeles. The teachers all shared one chief characteristic: strictness.

Hernandez considers social studies teacher Karen Taff one such mentor. Although Taff is known to be stern among other students, Hernandez disagrees.

“I wouldn’t necessarily call her strict, more like she has high standards, and she’ll hold you to them with your work and stuff,” she said. “She’ll tell you what you do better and how to do better. She won’t just say, ‘It sucks’ and hand it back to you.

After a moment’s consideration, Taff cheerfully denied being strict. In a tone of voice that suggested empathy, she said she understood, however, why her students have this misconception.Peyton Tonning

“Since I teach juniors, I think the teachers of juniors and seniors have a slightly different philosophy about their approach to the classroom, because we know how much closer our students are to the independent world of college life. And so we try – me and other veteran teachers – to get kids to accept responsibility for their own behavior, accept responsibility for their own learning and studying and all those kinds of self-discipline things that you have to have in order to survive on a college campus,” she said. “So I wouldn’t call myself strict, in a rule sense, but I do think the kids realize I’m expecting a lot out of them.”

Her philosophy explains much of Hernandez’s claim that Taff offers a lot of constructive criticism.

Taff believes criticism possesses great value. “Criticism can be such a motivating factor,” she said. “Criticism can be a moment of clarity for things that you sort of suspected about yourself, but when someone actually says it, you realize, ‘I really have to fix that.’ So in that sense, in my life, the praise is wonderful, thanks, and you’re sort of embarrassed by praise, but criticism can provide a galvanizing impetus for action.”

Maddy HilgerClinical psychologist Jerome Modlik also offered reasons why criticism may be more helpful than praise.

“Criticism can alter your behavior to obtain a more desirable response. If a person is making a straightforward mistake, no amount of praise will help that,” he said. “If someone hits a golf ball in the wrong way, you can’t say, ‘That’s wonderful.’ . . . So sometimes, criticism is necessary to point out how people are making mistakes and move them in a more appropriate direction.”

And like Hernandez, he has noticed that criticism has waned in society. In a recent football game in Texas, a high school football team defeated another team 91-0; responding to the loss, the opposing team filed a bullying complaint. Modlik said he recalled criticism being more prominent in older times.

“I think there is a very strong feeling that because one team did so poorly, that the other team must be bad for doing well, and we don’t want to criticize the team for making no points whatsoever,” he said. “I certainly remember, when I was younger, the news would have been almost certainly how bad that team was. Instead the team that did well gets criticized. I think there is a mistaken effort to praise behavior or to provide empty praise so that everybody wins. There are no losers, which doesn’t seem to fit right in the reality of the world.”

That is not so say that praise is ineffective. According to Hernandez, praise is only useful when words genuinely acknowledge others’ abilities.Haley Jones

“I think it’s better if they praise what you’re actually doing, like, ‘This was a really good effort on your part’ rather than ‘Dang, you’re good’ so that it encourages you to put that much effort next time you do something, so you get the same specific praise about your effort,” she said.

From a psychological perspective, Modlik also underscored the importance of occasional praise.

“Praise, when you see the behavior and you want to increase the frequency of the behavior happening, you provide praise,” he said. “‘Oh you got the homework done, that’s great.’ And so the next time, that increases the probability that they’ll do homework again. So you use praise to increase the behavior once it is identified.”

According to Modlik, it’s a question of harmony between criticism and praise. Although neither criticism nor praise can be solely used, both criticism and praise must be used.

Johnathan Jordan“One identifies what’s not right, and the other identifies the right behavior, and that behavior is reinforced with praise,” he said.

Danielle Guthrie,  a member of the women’s swim team and senior, said the swimming coaches often mentor in a similar balance of criticism and praise.

“They do that all the time, like, ‘You’re doing great’ after they criticize you,” she said. “They’ll watch your stroke, and if you’ve improved or changed it, then they’ll be like, ‘I think you’re really great. I really think you’re improving. Just keep that.’ There’s both.”

An even mixture of criticism and praise, Hernandez said, is best for a learning environment.

“(Teachers) should try to have one thing that you did well and one thing you need to work on. If they write five constructive criticisms, they should try to have four or five good things,” she said.

Taff said the effect of this depends on the student.

“I do think the bottom line is that it’s ultimately up to the individual what they do with the criticism or praise that matters, not the person giving it,” she said. “It’s the person on the receiving end. What are they going to do with it? That’s what matters. At some point, the applause is over, and then all that’s left is yourself looking in the mirror. Ultimately, that’s the most important person to decide how you are going to live your life.”


A fine line