Lavish Praise!


I had the great fortune to take my first Dialogue Education course back in 2001 at Eastern Mennonite University’s Summer Peacebuilding Institute with two facilitators named Peter Noteboom and Jane Vella. At the time, I remember it as a great course, but I didn’t really understand how completely transformative it was going to be for me in so many areas of my life.

The transformative potential was partly a function of how the Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach course—now called Foundations of Dialogue Education—built upon what I had already experienced as a learner, framed the learning process in an easily-accessible set of principles, validated the good practices that I had picked up from great teachers, and corrected some of the bad habits I had acquired in graduate school. But it was also because it was fun and I felt that I had the safety and space in which to learn, muff it up and try again. This was so unlike university!

In fact, on the first day, I was so excited by my learning experience that I ran up to Jane at a break and blurted out, “This course is so much better than the book!”

Jane took this exclamation surprisingly well. And rather than chastising for my back-handed complement, she graciously took it as a sign that I had found a way of learning that worked for me. She simply smiled, said, “Thank-you, Dwayne” and got ready for the next learning task.

I also recall being challenged that week by one of her many axioms of Dialogue Education: “Lavish praise”. I initially interpreted “lavish” as an adjective describing the type or volume of praise that I should offer learners. But being an introvert and someone who tends to be more analytical and problem–focused, this seemed alien to me. It was fine for someone like Jane who electrified the room when she walked in, and who exuded a joie de vivre. But it just didn’t seem like me.

Now that I’m an 11 years veteran in the parenting business, I’ve finally understood that “lavish” is more properly understood as a verb. And more important, a verb in the second person singular—the imperative! You (the teacher) lavish praise. Or perhaps even the French subjunctive: Il faut que…. You must! Thou shalt lavish praise! Even when you don’t feel like it, or they don’t deserve it or they are completely wrong-headed. Praise them for the effort.

As I see my kids struggle to learn new ideas, skills and attitudes, I’ve learned the importance of praising them for making the effort: “You can play this piece, Isaac. You’re working really hard to learn this song and you’ll get it like you did the last one. Just try that part again.”

And recently, I’ve started to remind my kids about how our brains are plastic, and that we can work to re-wire our brains through trying. The hard work that Isaac is doing at the piano of making his eyes, brain, ear and fingers work together is essential to forming new neural pathways. “You and your brain can learn anything, Isaac, just keep at it”.

Now “lavishing praise” doesn’t mean that I don’t correct my kids or learners in my workshops. It is still important to correct vital misinformation—“Those scissors will hurt you, Isaac! Stop running!”—but on less critical issues I try ask them to step back for a second, inquire why, and work with them to critically analyze their perspective. And then I make sure to affirm the effort that it takes to do this!

Yesterday we held a small tree-planting ceremony to thank Isaac’s grade two teacher who is moving to a new school. One of the parents spoke about how the teacher had a reputation for being tough on the kids.  But, the parent said, the kids observed that the next time they did it correctly, the teacher would always complement them.  Lavishing praise, reinforcing the positive behaviour.

I’m beginning to see that parenting and teaching are like caring for a tree: work with the good soil that you have, plant new ideas, add compost, mulch and water to help them grow, gradually expose them to the wind, cold and sunlight to strengthen them, prune them a bit so they can bloom more, rejoice in the sheer beauty that bursts forth….and very importantly, lavish praise!

P.S. Happy Birthday, Jane!