Having worked with children for a number of years in dance studios, camps, and now with students at GirlCode, the Coding Space’s girls-only coding summer camp in NYC, I’ve tested out my fair share of ways to give effective feedback. Although I’ve always made an effort to be vocal about acknowledging one’s accomplishments, it wasn’t until I read Steve’s (one of The Coding Space’s co-founders) article on giving praise that I reconsidered my approach. He referenced the book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk that laid out a technique made up of three steps:
1. Describe in detail
2. Share how it makes you feel
3. Don’t evaluate.
I took a step back to take note of my praise go-tos, which I found consisted mostly of “Nice job!”, “This looks great!”. I found that the theme among them was my use of evaluative language. I noticed that I hadn’t really been leaving room to explain to the student why putting effort into her project was an accomplishment enough, regardless of the finished product. I also thought back to what I know about the common differences between how girls and boys are praised in the classroom — namely, that teachers give boys more of what is known as “process praise”, or praise for one’s efforts (e.g. “You worked really hard on solving that!”), while they often give girls “person praise”, which labels a person in “good” or “bad” terms in response to a tangible end result (e.g. “You’re so good at that!”). Research has shown that process praise promotes a growth mindset, the idea that intelligence is not fixed, but rather a result of hard work and resilience. However, as girls receive person praise, they are conditioned to base their self-evaluation solely on what the project looks like when it’s done, instead of what got them there.
With this, I decided to give myself a week at GirlCode to change the way I react to a student’s work. I noticed Kira (name changed) who had a tendency to be down on herself and ask for help immediately instead of struggling through a challenge, and decided that I would try out this new technique with her.
The first opportunity presented itself during her work on a Scratch game that required her to work with clones, or duplicates of the character she created, a task that tends to stump students. She called me over a number of times throughout the morning, often right after I had just left her with a hint to tackle her next step. When she called me over for the fifth time, I decided I would still press her to struggle through the problem independently, but change how I spoke to her after she completed it. Although it would be much simpler to give her the answer, and perhaps make her feel better in the moment, it wouldn’t be in line with helping her develop a growth mindset.
It was especially difficult to push her through these difficult moments, because as a new coder myself, I could empathize with her frustration. I know the temptation to just ask for the answer. More importantly, though, I know how great it feels to finally reach it on your own. As I work through feelings of inadequacy that come up when I compare myself to more experienced coders, I am learning to value my learning process. As I’ve begun to embrace the growth mindset and promote it in my students, I’ve also been able to give myself more encouragement to work through my own setbacks or frustrations. In turn, I can apply this to how I relate to my students.
When she came to the solution this time, I said, “You worked really hard on this game. The clones were a challenge for you, but you persisted, and it looks like you feel proud of the game you made! It makes me happy to watch you grow.” In this statement, I did not comment on what I thought of the game she created, but simply stated the facts of what I saw her do. Her work became independent of my critique of it, and instead took on its own value that she was in control of. A huge smile spread across her face, she raced to ring the gong to signify she completed a project, and rushed back over to her computer, insisting that it was time to start a new one!
That week, we took a field trip to Tumblr, where the girls got the opportunity to present their team projects to a group of engineers. Here, Kira would be forced to face one of her biggest fears — public speaking — and I worried it might make her lose some of the confidence she’d built up. We worked through the fear by getting her to write down self-validating statements and preparing a short blurb she felt she could handle presenting. To my happy surprise, she handled her speech calmly and clearly. When she came off stage, I said, “I saw you prove to yourself how far you can come when you put your mind to something. You set a goal to face a fear and were able to persevere through it.” I didn’t care that others in the group had more speaking time than her — rather, I felt proud that she had accomplished something according to her own set of limits. And that, in turn, is what she was proud of too.
At the end of her two weeks at camp, I felt as if I was working with a different person. As her excitement for coding grew, so did her voice and her confidence. Each time she found herself face to face with a new puzzle, I continued to couple her efforts with descriptive praise.
By avoiding evaluative phrases during class and after seeing how positively a student reacts when I make the effort to choose my words more carefully, I’m able to see how my ingrained habits affect my own willingness to persevere. I am now motivated to continue training myself to use language that will encourage growth and forward motion in service of both myself and my students. When we are encouraged to celebrate each success along the way, the value shifts from an external reward to an internal one, making room for new definitions of success that allow for individual goals and capabilities.
Written by Gaby Marraro