‘Killing’ with kindness and the dangers of differentiation

Towards the end of last year, the newspapers appeared full of negative reports about teachers holding low expectations of students. Students from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds (especially white working class children and black children) are underachieving in schools and one of the causes, the reports claimed, is a ‘soft-bigotry of low expectations’.

It’s certainly possible that some teachers are explicitly bigoted, though I’d hope that people with such outspoken prejudice could not last long before being ejected from the profession. Implicit bigotry, subtle prejudices that influence behaviour, is harder to spot – but surely the overwhelming majority of teachers working with vulnerable groups of children are passionate and genuine in their desire to provide the best opportunities for those students, regardless of ethnicity or socioeconomic status. Teaching is often such a challenging and emotionally exhausting job, it’s hard to believe anyone who didn’t have a genuine commitment would last very long.

Perhaps it isn’t ‘soft-bigotry’ that underlies low expectations, but precisely that well-meaning desire to help?

Most teachers appear aware of how important it is for our students to adopt a “growth mindset” regarding education. However, many features of the school system act against this process and encourage both a performance orientation and a fixed mindset regarding ability to learn.

In a recent article, David Didau laments that the focus on ‘rapid’ progress (in terms of grades, levels and sub-levels) actively undermines attempts to help our students develop a growth mindset. At the end of the article he notes:

“It’s all very well to tell pupils that we want them to get cleverer through taking risks and making mistakes but nothing in the way [we] behave supports this message.”

I agree. Actually, I think the situation is even worse. It’s not simply the institutional obsession with grades which encourages children to adopt a performance orientation. Some of the things that we do to identify and support vulnerable students may work to actively undermine our students’ willingness to commit effort to learning.

‘Killing with kindness’

Cognitive theories of motivation have suggested that teachers’ implicit expectations can influence the motivation and performance of our students. Subtle differences in a teacher’s behaviour and even our emotional responses communicate these expectations.

For example, a recent article reported how teachers’ emotional responses can be interpreted as low expectations. It appears that being supportive and sympathetic towards students who struggle may communicate that we don’t expect so very much from them:

“Research has consistently shown that teachers are likely to experience emotions of anger or sympathy following students’ performances in the classroom, depending on their expectations of students … Students may interpret anger by the teacher as a reflection of higher expectations. The teacher’s reaction suggests that the outcome was in the control of the student, which implies that the student has high ability. Alternatively, students may interpret sympathy by the teacher as a reflection of lower expectations of them, that is, that the outcome was uncontrollable and thus the student has low ability …
“Thus, when teachers display anger, they demonstrate the belief that the student is capable of changing the behaviour and, thus, the outcome … The display of sympathy, however, communicates the belief that the student is incapable of changing the behaviour or the outcome …”

The dangers of differentiation

It’s not just our emotional support that may undermine expectations. Support mechanisms designed to help students make progress might sometimes be doing more harm than good. Common differentiation strategies include providing additional, alternative or simplified materials, or lowering the success criteria for the task, but some evidence suggests that such visible differentiation strategies may simply label the student as ‘low ability’ and communicate low expectations.

“Teachers who discriminate to a greater or lesser extent between high and low ability students have also been categorized. Brattesani, Weinstein, and Marshall (1984) identified such teachers who they called high and low differentiating. High differentiating teachers were those who provided distinctly different work for those students for whom they had high or low expectations and who constantly provided students with messages about their abilities. Low differentiating teachers, on the other hand, did not make ability differences salient in their classrooms.”

“High differentiating teachers frequently contrasted their high and low achievers and made achievement differences known to the students; students were publicly rewarded or decried for their performance relative to others and provided with extrinsic rewards such as stars and stickers.”

Needless to say, the authors report significantly worse outcomes for students who had high differentiating teachers.

Simply offering extra help, differentiation by support, is also a way of communicating low expectations:

“Helping behavior can also give students a message that they are perceived as low in ability, and it can undermine the positive achievement-related emotions associated with success. Meyer (1982) describes a study by Conty in which the experimenter offered unrequested help either to the subject or to another individual in the room working on the same task. Subjects who were offered help claimed to feel negative emotions (incompetence, anger, worry, disappointment, distress, anxiety) more, and positive emotions (confidence, joy, pride, superiority, satisfaction) less than subjects who observed another person being helped. Graaham and Barker (1990) report that children as young as six years rated a student they observed being offered help as lower in ability than another student who was not offered help.”

The dangers of praise and reward systems

Another way we may be communicating low expectations is with praise.

“In some circumstances there appear to be negative side effects of praise, at least for older children and adults. Praise for successful performance on an easy task can be interpreted by a student as evidence that the teacher has a low perception of his or her ability. As a consequence, it can actually lower rather than enhance self-confidence. Criticism following poor performance can, under some circumstances, be interpreted as an indication of the teacher’s high perception of the student’s ability.”

It seems that even ‘praising effort’ – a strategy that is fast approaching orthodoxy – may not always have the intended effects:

“Although attribution theorists assign effort a pivotal role in achievement outcomes, attributing either success to effort or failure to lack of effort is not without problems. As Covington and Omelich (1979) have explained, attributing either success or failure to effort is a ‘‘double-edged sword.’’ On one hand, expending effort and being successful brings a sense of accomplishment and pride. However, having to expend extraordinary effort to be successful implies that one has lower ability than persons who can successfully complete the task with limited or moderate effort expenditures.

“Students who believe they lack the ability to complete academic tasks successfully may not expend effort because failure would be a public admission of low ability. Covington and Omelich explain that not trying and failing is ‘‘not really failing,’’ because ‘‘true failure’’ occurs only in the case where an individual tries hard to accomplish a task and fails to do so. They also explain failure resulting from lack of effort as an attempt to protect and preserve a sense of self-worth.”

When we praise effort, do some children interpret it as implying they lack ability?

We want children to have a ‘growth mindset’, but it is naïve to believe that children develop ideas about ability or intellect purely from interactions with teachers. Children come to us with ‘common sense’ theories of intellect; their attributions firmly constructed, frequently reinforced outside school and, for all our efforts, highly resistant to change. We need to have strategies which will work for all children; including those who maintain a fixed mindset across their years at school.

In praise of grumpy teachers

We want all our students to embrace a growth mindset and have high expectations of themselves, but our grade obsessed culture and our own desire to help may inadvertently reinforce the opposite messages. As a profession we need to carefully consider whether some of the things we do to identify and help vulnerable students are actually hindering those children’s chances at school. The danger is that the very intervention programmes that schools are setting up to support vulnerable students in making progress may be actively reinforcing a fixed mindset, labelling low ability and communicating low expectations.

Finally, we need to be aware that sympathy and praise – natural, compassionate things teachers do in order to try to protect children’s feelings or build ‘self-belief’ – may frequently have the reverse effect. Some of the research implies that to communicate high expectations we need to be that traditional ‘tactically grumpy’ teacher; hard to please, sceptical of excuses and exceptionally sparing with praise.

Follow up: 6th June

A really interesting paper from the BPS research digest touches on some of the points made in this article. It reports on a series of studies by Brummelman. The researchers found that adults were much more likely to give extremely positive praise to children who had low self-esteem – but that this over-praising led to those children avoiding challenging tasks in future.

… the finding builds on a number of experiments conducted in recent years showing that positive praise isn’t necessarily good for all children in all circumstances. For children with low self-esteem, although we might feel the need to shower them in adulation, this might end up having precisely the opposite effect.

It’s interesting to note that the praise involved was ‘product praise’ rather than personal; e.g. “you made an incredibly beautiful drawing!”. It shows the potential dangers of trying to manipulate children’s mindset through the use of praise.

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9 Responses to ‘Killing’ with kindness and the dangers of differentiation

  1. Happy Teacher (@letsjustwaitfor) says:

    Differentiation by support and by outcome is the most powerful way to teach. It simply works – for us all, teachers and children. There are no implicit messages that half the class ‘need something easier’. Everyone grows a foot. It is a teaching method that requires adult support by the spadeful, sadly lacking in many primary classrooms. One teacher, thirty children…how can I ensure most achieve in this lesson? Sadly, differentiation by task. We should all strive for differentiation by task to be the Bertie Backup teaching method – for emergency use.


    • You say that differentiation works and you’re probably right. In the short term I don’t doubt that it allows children to achieve the lesson’s learning objectives – but is visibly giving extra help (differentiation by support), or expecting children to accomplish less (differentiation by outcome) also communicating the teacher’s attitudes about that student’s ability, that in the long term reduce motivation and effort?
      I suppose I’m saying that we need to be aware of how our ‘helpful behaviour’ is interpreted by our pupils – as for children who have a fixed mindset that helping behaviour may inadvertently communicate low expectations.


      • Happy Teacher says:

        Yes, ‘differentiation’ becomes entirely the wrong word..I am beginning to choke on it!! My thinking is: Lessons delivered in a context of open ended tasks and open ended support, have very different, and far superior, outcomes from ‘differentiation’ through task and ability grouped tables of children. Perhaps it is, in fact, not then differentiated at all. By ‘Open Ended’, I mean a place where EVERY child can be extended and achieve more than they imagined possible…in every lesson. The whole class, including the children on whom we traditionally focus all this additional adult support. I am in full agreement…reflection is needed.


  2. Kathy Waldner says:

    Open ended tasks where each child is extended and achieves to the best of his or her ability seems to be developing a class of thinkers in my classroom. However, I always need to keep in mind that all students will not show the same level of expertise at the same time – students are not all exactly on the same place in their development on a continuum.


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