This morning I ran into a story in The Daily Mail that describes a new policy in Uplands Manor Primary School in Smethwick, West Midlands, England. To wit: teachers are no longer allowed to mark papers using red ink. All papers are to be corrected using a soothing color of green. And while Uplands headmaster Ken Ridge denies that the decision was made because "red is negative," they're just the last in a long line of schools who have made this decision for exactly that reason. In fact, in 2009 teachers across Australia were urged by government officials to stop using red because it is "perceived as aggressive" and could lead to students becoming "demoralized." [Source]
Now, as a veteran educator (26 years and counting) my first thought was; how fragile, exactly, do they think that the human psyche is? There is an increasing tendency, both in education and in parenting (which, now that I think of it, really amount to the same thing), to use an "I'm OK, you're OK, everyone's pretty doggone OK" approach. Don't tell a kid he's gotten a question wrong; focus on the fact that he had fewer misspelled words in his answer than last time. Don't tell a kid he's failed; tell him that he "needs some improvement." Don't score on correct answers, score on effort.
To which I say: bullshit.
Self esteem, in my experience, doesn't come from people telling you over and over that you are competent when you're not. It doesn't come from any number of self esteem building exercises. It doesn't come from having your papers graded using soothing pastel tones. It comes from striving for mastery, from achieving what you thought you might not be able to achieve, from being successful in worthwhile endeavors. As far as I can see, all that happens when you tell a kid over and over that he's amazingly wonderful regardless of his behavior or academic performance is that he becomes insulated from the real world, develops a sense of entitlement, and decides that anything he does will be good enough for praise. One of the most socially maladjusted teens I've ever seen came from a family where he was told, at every turn, that he was not only brilliant, that he was more brilliant than any of his peers, and that (in fact) he was so brilliant that the public schools were not doing him justice. Having taught this young man (twice) I can say that he is plenty smart, but not so smart as all that, and there were a number of times when his "I'm so bright that you have nothing useful to teach me" attitude was shown to be, in fact, false. This truth notwithstanding, he continued in this general frame of mind right up until graduation, and his first comeuppance -- possibly in his entire life -- came in the form of rejections from the fairly prestigious colleges he had applied to. This devastated him (understandably) -- when had he ever been told, by anyone, that he wasn't good enough?
The sad truth about human society is that it's a pretty rough place at times. We do our children no favors by overprotecting them when they don't win the race, when they don't pass the test; as hard as it is, it's better to say, "if it's important to you, what can you do to do better next time?" rather than "races and tests aren't important." They say that adversity builds character; and within reason, that platitude is true. For all of the struggle my son went through, trying to learn how to socialize in middle school, he gained more by my saying, "I love you, be strong, I know it's hard but you need to keep trying," than he would have if I'd said, "those people are all stupid, you're better than them, you don't need them."
It's a fine line. We want (both as teachers and as parents) to see children in an environment where they can succeed. This success shouldn't be too horribly difficult to achieve; but it's as bad to make it too easy, because then it is perceived as worthless. How to strike that balance is no easy task for teachers, especially in these days of large class sizes and (very) heterogeneous populations. And when kids don't succeed, it's important to understand that there are three possibilities for why that happened: (1) The teacher didn't adequately teach the concept. In my experience, this is uncommon, but it does happen, and a skilled teacher should be willing to own up and reteach if necessary. (2) The student is placed incorrectly, and the task was either too difficult for a student of his/her ability or the student has outside issues that are interfering with his/her ability to succeed. When this happens, school administration should address either getting help for the student, or changing his/her placement. (3) The student didn't put enough time or effort into mastery (or the right type of effort). This seems to me to be the most common of the three.
And when this happens, the right solution is not to grade in Gentle Green, or to tell the student that "your right answers were great!" and ignore the wrong ones. The right solution is to tell the student, with gentleness and compassion, that (s)he can do better, and to give advice as to how that might be accomplished. The genuine pleasure on the face of a student who has struggled, and then done really well on a worthwhile assignment, is a thousand times more authentic than any number of insincere positive reinforcements, gold stars for everyone, and self-esteem building exercises.