Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Least Expensive Method for Improving Student Achievement

Two years ago, I was fortunate enough to listen to Dr. Douglas Reeves speak at a conference that I was attending in Phoenix.  I have always admired Dr. Reeves, and I find him to be one of the most compelling and well-researched speakers that I have ever listened to.  I have read most of his books and dozens of his articles.  Needless to say, when he speaks, I feel it's pretty important for me to listen.

He took the group of 600 or so people that were in the large theatre at the conference through an activity that I encourage you to try.  He instructed each of us to take a piece of paper and fold it “hot dog” (if you don’t know what this means, likely you are not a nerdy educator like I am).  In the left hand column, he then asked us to list each of the initiatives that we have started doing at our schools in the last 10 years.  I eagerly wrote down as many of these things as I possibly could, ranging from Professional Learning Communities, to Assessment for Learning, to Literacy Initiatives, to PBS/EBS, to Roots of Empathy, and many others.  One of my colleagues did the same thing beside me, as did a number of people sitting around us.  Needless to say, we were filled with a sense of self-importance: we were quite proud of the length of our lists.

He then asked us to write another list in the right hand column:  he asked us to write all of the initiatives that we had stopped doing.  Well, you can imagine, there was a growing roar of laughter.  Of course, very few of us stopped anything.  Many (if not most) initiatives just faded to oblivion, and became another one of those large, coiled binders that sit on our shelves in our offices like so many badges of courage that we tend to bear.

Dr. Reeves moved on to another topic, but I sat there and looked at my lengthy list:  I thought about all of the time and money that we had spent on these initiatives.  Clearly, this was not money well spent because there were only a couple of initiatives that we are still doing today.  If the initiative was worth it, we would still have been doing it.  I was suitably depressed.

In my last post, I cracked the book Visual Learning, by John Hattie, to help me avoid repeating history and chasing after educational rainbows.  But with my endless spare time between finishing “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” trilogy, I have also found the opportunity to read another excellent book called Bringing out the Best in Teachers by Blase and Kirby.   This book has a strong research base, and has a number of very reasonable and do-able strategies that can help students to be successful.  And within this book I found one of the cheapest and easiest methods for improving achievement ever.  PRAISE.
Did you know that giving teachers praise increases student achievement?  In Chapter Two, which is entitled "The Power of Praise", the authors cite dozens of studies that underscore the impact that sincere praise from the Principal can have on teachers.  Not surprisingly, personal praise (ie. "That's a nice sweater") is far less impactful than praise that is job-specific.  The authors suggest seven tips for Principals in praising their teachers (Blase and Kirby, 2009):

1. Praise sincerely
2. Maximize the use of nonverbal communication (smiles, nods and touches)
3. Schedule time for teacher recognition
4. Write brief personal notes or emails to compliment individuals
5. Show pride in teachers by boasting to others about them
6. Praise briefly
7. Target praise to teachers work

I think about all of the initiatives and all of the time and all of the resources and all of the money, and here is something that costs absolutely nothing but really makes a difference.  Praising our teachers is something that all of us can and should do.  I need to do more of it. And not just because it's good for student achievement. 

It's the right thing to do, and it feels good.

Do you praise your teachers enough?

Blase, J. and Kirby, P. (2009) Bringing out the best in teachers: what effective Principals Do.  Corwin Press, Thousand Oaks CA.


  1. Thanks for the post. Often it is more convenient to give praise to those that are more extroverted or take on large school initiatives or events. Your article has served to remind that I need to praise those teachers that quietly go about their business without much hoopla!

  2. Cale,

    There are so many new strategies, new techniques, and supposed silver bullets that offer to solve all of our educational woes. I think your post is right on when it comes to a simple and effective way to bringing more positivity into the lives of others. Additionally, I really feel your post is reemphasizing the importance of building and establishing strong relationships among our students and colleagues. We expect to be treated in a certain way, and because of this we need to be aware of how we treat others.

    I appreciate you taking the time to remind us all of the "power of praise."

  3. Cale,

    What interests my about the list of seven items, with the exception of #2, we see all of them at play in the edu-blog world - not from principals to teachers but from colleague to colleague. I think many of us who read, reflect and learn with each other on a regular basis praise sincerely, set aside time to comment and thank others who are helping us with our learning, send e-mails or DMs to colleagues for particularly thoughtful posts, we share their ideas with others and we focus on the ideas that impact learning.

    In many ways this list helps define those who "get" this community - it is more than just a buhnch of people posting stuff.

    Thanks for sharind Reeves' work - it is realy useful to educators regardless of role.

  4. With a slight tweak of a word or two, this list works well for praising students, too...praise students this way and watch achievement soar!

    1. Praise sincerely
    2. Maximize the use of nonverbal communication (smiles, nods, etc)
    3. Schedule time for 1:1 student recognition
    4. Write brief personal notes to compliment individual students
    5. Show pride in students (the class) by boasting to others about them
    6. Praise briefly
    7. Target praise to students work


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