A note on positive feedback

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We praise daily work that contains little effort and no serious thought. We are taught when studying for teaching degrees to seek something positive to say about any work turned into us, and not to use red pens, since marking up papers with a lot of red ink makes students feel bad. When students copy each other on group projects, we allow this as a “group effort.”
Frankly, some of these papers deserve to be covered in red ink. Some of these group efforts should be shut down. While I believe in positive comments, in fairness I know there are times when “Think!!” is a perfectly reasonable word to scrawl in a margin. Character counts.
Positive feedback for lazy, marginal efforts only nets us more lazy marginal efforts. Giving “A” grades for mediocre efforts ensures more mediocre efforts. Our poorest schools keep cranking out substandard work and we wonder why. At least one reason is all those positive comments placed on papers that ought to have said, “Do this over!” instead.


Let me make this post less theoretical: I have a student I’ll call Ulyses. Ulyses is a quiet boy who does more of his homework than most. He reliably does his classwork. Awhile back, he turned in an assignment which noted sadly that once he had been a good student who got good grades. He’s having a rough year this year in comparison.  He’s getting mostly Cs and some Bs. I took some time to tell him he was doing fine. I have given only a few “A” grades this year, I told him, and I have appreciated his steady efforts.

Here’s the thing: I’m not sure if he started kindergarten in the U.S. and is still in bilingual classes seven years later. Some of my students started kindergarten here and are in year seven — destined at this rate to finish high school in bilingual classes unless some changes are made. But I know Ulyses has been in bilingual classes since early elementary school.

He tells me he got high grades in his bilingual classes in elementary school. My question is the following: If he was doing so well, why has he been unable to pass the English-language exit test for all these years? He isn’t even doing particularly well on the test, not well enough to qualify for part-time help. He is in full-time bilingual classes. If this boy had actually been doing well, I would have expected him to learn English.

But I believe him when he tells me he always got good grades. He’s an honest kid. What I suspect happened here is a version of what I wrote when starting this entry. I bet his teachers just kept putting positive comments on his papers, no matter how many mistakes those papers had on them. They probably wanted to avoid making him feel bad, so they avoided directly correcting many of his mistakes.

They may have intended to be kind. What they did to Ulyses was not kind, however. This is a good kid without any learning disabilities who has fallen years behind grade level despite probably having been a diligent student, especially in his earlier years. An outsider might suspect this is an example of the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”

The scariest part of what I’ve written: I’m not sure Ulyse’s problems have resulted from the soft bigotry of low expectations. I think I’m looking at what can happen when current educational philosophy is put into practice by people who don’t understand that if you reward crap, you will keep getting crap.