Feedback can be highly effective if used carefully and related to learning goals. While formal, written feedback is desirable, most of the time teachers are engaging in informal verbal feedback. Identify and clarify errors early; if left for too long they will be consolidated into long-term memory and become much more difficult to unlearn. Point to areas that require improvement and give detailed advice on how this can be achieved. Incorporate this into Personal Best goals if appropriate. Praise should be used strategically and teachers need to resist the temptation to use praise as a way of making students feel better about themselves.
As discussed earlier, there are problems with self-esteem, or rather the way in which it has been framed. The now redundant view of self-esteem suggested that it leads to higher rates of self-confidence and academic success, but its emphasis on being better than others often meant that it resulted in arrogance and over-confidence. The ideas proposed in this book suggest that academic success is possible (and even preferable) when we support others as they support us and resist the temptation to make ourselves appear better by making others feel worse about themselves. It's a sad truth that society looks unfavourably on failure and favourably on success, perhaps ignoring all the failures we often suffer on the way to being successful. The truth is that we all fail and we are all imperfect and these truths are part of the essential human condition - they are part of our existence and we share them with every other person on the planet.
It's an interesting observation that we will often try and comfort a loved one who is going through a rough patch by emphasising these points - that failure is part of life, that we all go through hard times and that there are plenty more fish in the sea. Unfortunately, we rarely have these conversations with ourselves. What we tend to do is ruminate on our shortcomings, berate ourselves for our missed opportunities or criticise ourselves for failing. We might support and comfort those closest to us, but will also try and make ourselves feel less of a failure by highlighting someone else's greater failure. We often see this in political dialogue when one government attempts to defend their own failures by claiming that their predecessors failed deeper or for longer, even if these events occurred a very long time ago. We can also witness this when people are ranked in terms of success, in that we can always attempt to assert our own success by drawing attention to those below us in the rankings.
Psychologist Kristin Neff suggests that we should treat ourselves in the same way as we would treat a loved one who is going through a hard time. Rather than being over-critical, we should treat ourselves with kindness, compassion and understanding. Neff describes this as self-compassion. We should neither pity ourselves nor attempt to become better than others, but rather admit the we (like everyone else) are imperfect and prone to err (Neff & Vonk, 2009).
There is certainly merit in this approach. Self-compassion eliminates the destructive elements of self-esteem while at the same time accepting that our imperfections are as ubiquitous as death and taxes. We then remove the pursuit of perfection, an inadequate goal state, as it is neither realistic or achievable. Of course, self-compassion also needs to ensure that we can move forward towards fulfilling our goals. When we set our goals we must factor setbacks into our plan, self-compassion allows us to evaluate these setbacks without feeling that they were brought about due to our own failings. Setbacks, then, became part of the pursuit rather than a personal failure, raising self-efficacy in the process. Many schools have found Mindfulness useful for cultivating compassion for ourselves and others.
Whole school structures
A culture of high expectations is always a worthwhile place to begin, however, so is emphasising the role of having a go. Success should always be celebrated, as should effort, so the pupil who has made less progress through continued effort and the overcoming of challenges should be held in equally high regard as the student who might find success easier. However, it's just as important to resist the temptation of rewarding or praising those students who are merely doing what is expected. For example, rewarding a student for turning up to lessons does not represent adequate praise because the student is simply doing as they are supposed to. The only possible exceptions (and I stress possible) would be the child with a history of school refusal for reasons that imply that great effort has gone into actually walking through the door of the classroom.
Rewarding students with some element of responsibility has been found to contribute to higher levels of confidence and school attainment (for example, Rutter's study of London schools discussed in Chapter 2). This might be in the selection of prefects, house captains, class spokespeople or similar. Just ensure that the criteria for increased responsibility is shared with students and those who might shun responsibility are encouraged in other ways.