***OFFICIAL BLOG POST DISCLAIMER***
Attention educators: This blog post is not intended to suggest that telling a student “Good Job!” is in any way, shape or form comparable to providing detailed feedback in response to work the student has completed. So please put down all eggs and rotten tomatoes. :)
I include a disclaimer only half-jokingly because I am well aware there are many teachers out there who absolutely detest the use of the phrase “Good Job,” whether used in response to a young person's performance on an English paper, school play or JV soccer game. I get it. In fact, depending on how it is used, oftentimes I’m not fond of the phrase, either. Some of us these days—whether teaching, coaching or parenting—tend to overuse “Good Job” to the point that it is rendered meaningless. Or worse. Overuse may even produce a negative effect in opposition to the speaker’s original—albeit kind-hearted—intention. Saying “Good Job!” when the student has not, in fact, done one can negatively reinforce mediocre effort and work.
In his book, The Optimistic Child: A Proven Program to Safeguard Children Against Depression and Build Lifelong Resilience, Dr. Martin Seligman argues that true self-esteem in young people is not developed through simple praise, but rather through students’ own hard work and mastery:
There is no effective technology for teaching feeling good which does not first teach doing well. Feelings of self-esteem in particular, and happiness in general, develop as side effects—of mastering challenges, working successfully, overcoming frustration and boredom, and winning. The feeling of self-esteem is a byproduct of doing well.1
Dr. Seligman’s hypotheses ring true for me. I know from my own experience as a student, son, and father that there were times when no amount of “Good Job”-type feedback made me feel as though…well…as though I had actually done a good job. My guess is that most of you are nodding your heads in agreement: Any educator or parent learns early on that kids see through empty praise.
In full acknowledgement of these valid, logical arguments as why we should not use “good job” with our students, I nevertheless would now like to state my case as to why a well-placed “good job” now and then may not only be a “good” thing—for many students, I would argue, it may actually have a profound effect on their learning experience.
My reasoning is all about relationship (and has little to do with content—see disclaimer, above). Although hard for committed educators to stomach, there are students out there who go through years of education feeling mostly invisible; who have few-if-any relationships with teachers in which the student feels as though the adult truly believes in his or her abilities and potential.
Although “Good Job” may sound trivial, positive reinforcement is not trivial. It is a valid strategy and building block (when partnered, of course, with substantive and specific feedback) for the sort of relationship that can make a significant difference in a student’s trajectory. But it needs to come from a sincere and authentic place, as psychologist Thom Markham notes:
Positive, sincere beliefs matter. This is territory virtually unexplored in education, but the latest research is clear: The body and brain respond favorably to care, sincerity and unconditional acceptance, which are relayed through the heart and vagal system to the brain. So it’s not enough to smile (fake smiles don’t work, anyway) and say the right words unless you believe them wholeheartedly.2
What might a strategically placed, authentic and thoughtful “Good Job” accomplish?
- At its most basic, it reminds the student that there is a teacher out there who is paying attention.
- It acknowledges hard work and solid effort.
- A well-timed “Good Job” places one more checkmark in the positive feedback column, which may enable the student to be more open to future constructive criticism.
Do I think that “Good Job” is the panacea for education reform? Of course not. And certainly not if it is used primarily as a substitute for more substantive and specific praise or feedback. But used discreetly, sincerely and strategically, it is a small tool that can make a difference. Especially for teachers facilitating online courses—where communication modes are limited mainly to writing—the strategic value of “good job” becomes amplified. Thoughtful consideration of when and how to use it should be an item in every online teacher’s bag of tricks.
1The Optimistic Child: A Proven Program to Safeguard Children Against Depression and Build Lifelong Resilience, Dr. Martin Seligman (Mariner Books, 2007, p. 33).
2 “What Believing in the Possibilities Can Do For Learning and Teaching,” by Thom Markham (December 18, 20014, http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2014/12/what-believing-in-the-possibilities-can-do-for-learning-and-teaching/).