WASHINGTON: For decades, the prevailing wisdom in education was that high self-esteem would lead to high achievement. The theory led to an avalanche of daily affirmations, award ceremonies and attendance certificates - but few, if any, academic gains.
Now, an increasing number of teachers are weaning themselves from what some call 'empty praise'. A growing body of research over three decades shows that easy, unearned praise does not help students but instead interferes with significant learning opportunities.
As schools ratchet up academic standards for all students, the new buzzwords are 'persistence', 'risk-taking' and 'resilience' - each implying more sweat and strain than fuzzy, warm feelings.
'We used to think we could hand children self-esteem on a platter,' Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck said. 'That has backfired.'
Her studies have found that praising children for intelligence - 'You're so clever!' - also backfires. In study after study, children rewarded for being smart become more likely to shy away from hard assignments that might tarnish their star reputations.
Instead, those praised for trying hard or taking risks tend to enjoy challenges and find greater success. Children also perform better in the long term when they believe their intellect is not a birthright but something that grows and develops as they learn new things.
Education experts have long warned about the dark side of praise.
Mr Alfie Kohn, author of the book Punished By Rewards, has said that most praise, even for effort, encourages children to be 'praise junkies' dependent on outside feedback instead of cultivating their own judgment and motivation to learn.
Ms Michelle Rhee, the former Washington, DC schools chancellor, often recounts a story about how her daughters' many soccer trophies are warping their sense of their athletic abilities.
Her daughters 'suck at soccer', she said in a radio interview in January last year.
'We've become so obsessed with making kids feel good about themselves that we've lost sight of building the skills they need to actually be good at things,' she added.
Underlying the praise backlash is a hard seed of anxiety - a sense that American students are not working hard enough to compete with students from overseas for future jobs.
In an oft-cited 2006 study by the Brown Centre on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, American eighth-graders had only a middling performance in an international mathematics exam but registered high levels of confidence. They were more likely than higher-performing students from other countries, such as Singapore and South Korea, to report that they 'usually do well in mathematics'.
Praise should be relevant to objective standards, said Mr Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think-tank. Whether it is given to make children feel good or because 'at least they tried', it is not helpful if students are still '50 yards from proficient', he said.
Professor Dweck said it is important to be clear with children about what proficient or gold-medal performance looks like so they know what to strive for. But she stresses the importance of using praise to encourage risk-taking and learning from failure in the classroom, experiences that make way for invention, creativity and resilience.
'Does the teacher say: 'Who's having a fantastic struggle? Show me your struggle.' That is something that should be rewarded,' she said.
'Does the teacher make it clear that the fastest answer isn't always the best answer? (That) a mistake-free paper isn't always the best paper?' she added.