Published: 2008-11-08

Imagine a young confident teacher who stands in front of his teen-aged class and dramatically begins a computerised slide show. The slides contain images of Indian street children living among piles of rubbish. One picture shows a young girl eating rotten vegetables; another shows boys playing football among excrement and dirt.

The students are disgusted but captivated and watching intently. The presentation finishes and their teacher strides to the front. Using open questions he draws out what the students saw and then explains that today the class will work on creating solutions to the problem of street children. He explains the seriousness of their work, both for the Indian children and their grades.

Solemnly he passes out worksheets and asks students to complete the sheets for the remainder of the lesson. The children’s behaviour is impeccable throughout the lesson and, as he wanders from child to child, he praises the work he sees on their desk: “Amy, I knew you could complete work this well” or “Rajit, your work is wonderful, you’re so smart”.

As the bell rings, students turn in their work and our teacher sits down feeling that the lesson has gone perfectly. Right? Not quite. Positive psychology shows that our teacher’s lesson might, in fact, be a serious problem.

Research Fact #1: Negative Imagery Narrows Student’s Creativity

Teenagers are intrigued by disgusting images that evoke strong emotions. Because the shock of such images silences students many teachers use them to capture attention at the beginning of a lesson. This tool, however, can backfire. Experiments by Barbara Frederickson demonstrated that showing series of negative images elicit negative emotions from viewers.

These negative emotions mean that subsequently, when taking part in a creative task, down-beat participants create far less solutions to a question than groups shown positive images before their task. Sure, our teacher has a room full of acquiescent teenagers, but their ability to create solutions for the India street children is not being helped by the negative images shown first.

Research Fact #2: Referring to Tasks as ‘Work’ will Make Them Inherently Less Appealing than if You Label Them as a ‘Game’

Ellen Langer’s book “The Power of Mindful Learning” is replete with tips for enabling students to enjoy learning. Arguably the study most important for teachers is one where Langer describes how she and her colleagues gave a set of tasks to adults. The instructions given to one group continually referred to the tasks as ‘work’; whereas tasks were presented to the other group as ‘a game’.

Initially, when the tasks were easy, both groups reported similar levels of focus and enjoyment. As the tasks became harder, however, the ‘work’ group increasingly reported their mind wandering and, by the final task, the ‘work’ group experienced significantly less enjoyment than the group who had been told they were playing a game. Remember, the tasks in both groups were exactly the same; the only difference was the group’s belief that the task was either ‘work’ or ‘play’.

So, how could our teacher improve his lesson? Being purposeful is important to student engagement but it is not the same as portraying each worksheet as a serious piece of ‘work’. The distinction between play and learning is one of mindset. If our man portrayed the worksheet as a purposeful ‘puzzle’ or a ‘mystery’ students will focus for longer on their work and, crucially, they will enjoy it. This enjoyment then leads to even more positive emotions and even more creativity. See how positive psychology begins spiralling once you start! By making work playful and purposeful students produce higher quality work.

Research Fact #3: Phrases Like “You’re a Smart One” can Lead to Anxious Challenge-Avoidant students

Give specific praise about what students did during a task for better results. Using the words “Rajit, your work is wonderful, you’re so smart” was intended by the teacher as a compliment. He’s trying to motivate Rajit and build his confidence by pointing out what went well, just like all teachers are taught to do in training.

But what is going on inside Rajit’s head as the teacher says this? Perhaps he thinks “Yes I am smart and I didn’t even have to try to prove it in this work”. If so, Rajit might fail to try hard in the future until the point where his innate abilities are no longer enough to get by causing him then to flounder.

Alternatively, perhaps Rajit thinks “Oh no! I’m not smart. I just got lucky. Now he thinks I’m smart and he’s going to expect this every time.” Thus leading Rajit to be anxious because he is none the wiser about what he is good at and so has no reason to be confident that he could replicate it in future classwork.

So what should his teacher say instead? Carol Dweck set an experiment where students, having successfully completed a task, were rewarded differently. One group were praised for their innate ability (“Wow. You got a high score. You must be smart at this.”). One group were praised for their efforts during the process (“You must have worked really hard to get that score”). And a final group were praised for their performance only (“You did a good job”).

Students were then asked to choose a task to do next. They had two choices. One task was challenging but students would learn a lot regardless of their success rate. The other task was easier with sure success but, crucially, less learning. Surely all children choose the easy route? Actually, 90% of children praised for effort went for the challenging task enabling them to learn more.

On the other hand, the majority of the students praised for being intelligent went for the easier task. Rajit, it seems, might well walk out of the lesson feeling pleased but he is likely to avoid learning experiences in the future if they look too challenging.

Being specific and targeted with our praise in the classroom helps students understand what they did well and they can then replicate this in future classes without anxiety. Focusing on what students are is likely to build their anxiety and feelings of pseudo-competence. Every teacher should think about this the next time they circulate the room looking for students to praise.


Of course, our teacher should be proud of what he did achieve. He prepared in advance, engaged his students, got them working and sent away slightly more knowledgeable children than the ones who first arrived.

All those things are invaluable. But positive psychology shows that by tweaking our plans students receive a greater academic and emotional education. So, what are you waiting for, which idea should you implement first?

Further Reading

Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: the New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books

Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity. New York: Crown.

Langer, E. (1997). The Power of Mindful Learning. Boston: Addison-Wesley.