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Reappraising Praise: Responding to Visitors’ Answers

Motivation. Conventional wisdom tell us that it is the key to learning. You’ve practiced motivating groups and individuals by developing your ability to ask good questions. However, your response to learners’ answers can be as strong a motivation tool as the questions you ask.

Consider this example. A group of sixth grade students visits your museum for a field trip. You greet them at the door and explain that your job is to tell them interesting things about the exhibits and ask questions about their experience. At your first stop, you ask “What does this object tell you about life during the nineteenth century?”

One student eagerly replies, “They had no electricity.” “What a smart boy,” you say.

Another student raises her hand. “People were self-reliant.”

“That’s a perfect answer,” you remark. When you ask for additional responses no hands are raised.

What happened? You’ve learned that praise is an important motivational technique and you think it’s great when someone praises you. How could your responses have affected these students in such dramatically different ways? And what could you have done instead?

To best respond to learners, the dilemma of “praise” must be examined. Many education professionals have proposed theories about why praise can motivate some students but discourage others. In their popular book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish suggest several reasons why praise can elicit negative responses. In our previous example, the second student might have believed that, having given the perfect response to the first question, she might falter on the next. Or, she might have felt the docent was insincere because he was looking at another student while praising her. Or, she might have been reminded by the docent’ s praise of all the less than perfect answers she gave in her math class that morning. (Other students, who were eager to participate, can also become reluctant. The “perfect’ answer is a tough act to follow.)

You needn’t eliminate praise from your vocabulary entirely, but developing alternative ways of responding to learners will give you the techniques you need when praise clearly does not work. While you may find it difficult to change your natural way of responding to learners, the following suggestions might be useful as you examine and refine your response style.

Learn to Really Pay Attention
Another tour shuffling by, a crate being unloaded in the next room, another group standing where you hoped to take your tour next ╤ these are just a few of the distractions you may encounter when working with groups. Despite these, or other, annoyances, try to focus your attention fully on the visitor while he is answering your question. Make sure you face him squarely, leaning slightly toward him if possible. Also, use your eyes to communicate. This means paying attention to everything about him ╤ his posture, mannerisms, the look on his face. Maintain steady eye contact so that he is aware of your effort to notice him. Be aware that your non-verbal communication is often more important than the words you use.

Point out the Contribution, Not the Quality of the Answer
Many authors have suggested that we are a nation of praise addicts who perform for compliments, prizes, or rewards. Non-traditional educational settings, such as museums and zoos, offer excellent opportunities to begin changing this system. Most important to this process is the docent’ s ability to provide a psychologically safe environment for visitors to use their imagination to ask or answer questions. To do this, you must learn to acknowledge students’ answers without judgment ╤ positive or negative.

When responding to a learner, use words that describe the visitor’s contribution to the discussion, rather than praising or criticizing the content of the answer. For example, in response to “they had no electricity” you could reply, “you’re helping us think about how life was different then.” Or, to “people were self-reliant,” a comment like “you’re seeing how the environment affects people’s character” would be appropriate.

Encourage Creative Thinking with Creative Responding
In your training, as well as in previous issues of this publication, you learned that museums are excellent places for creative thinking to occur. You probably have practiced various instructional strategies to stimulate creative thought. Creative responding, however, is just as important to creative development and just as challenging to the learner.

Books of techniques for creativity training are found in many bookstores. Most are excellent resources. An especially good technique — one that is not always mentioned in popular books ╤ is SCAMPER, introduced many years ago by the late Bob Eberle. SCAMPER is an acronym that prompts the following cues for creative thinking: Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Magnify, Minify, Put to Other Uses, Eliminate, Reverse, or Rearrange. The advantage of this method is that it can be applied in many situations and no concrete materials are required. To illustrate SCAMPER’S usefulness, imagine you are conducting a tour of an historic home and you ask, “How is this home different from your own?” A student responds, “There’s no television!” Instead of referring to the fact that television didn’t exist during that period of history, use SCAMPER to formulate questions like, “What else could people have done with their leisure time?” (Substitute), or “How might the house have changed if these people had television?” (Reverse). By challenging responses with creative questions, you encourage learners to go beyond content mastery into an exciting new learning process.

Rather than addressing specific instructional techniques, this approach to motivation focuses on response style. By practicing and using these skills, you can have a significant impact on the learners’ desire to become engaged in the learning process ╤ during your tour and throughout their lives!


S Substitute To have a person or thing act or serve in place of another: Who else instead? What else? Other place? Other time?
C Combine To bring together, unite: How about a blend? Combine purposes? Combine ideas?
A Adapt To adjust for the purpose of suiting a condition or purpose: What else is like this? What other ideas does this suggest?
M Magnify To enlarge, make greater inform or quality: What to add? Greater frequency? Faster? Stronger? Larger?
  Minify To make smaller, inform or quality: What to subtract? Smaller? Lighter? Slower? Less frequent?
P Put To Other Uses New ways to use it? Other uses if modified?
E Eliminate To remove or omit a part, quality or whole: What parts can be taken out? To keep the same function? To change the function?
R Reverse To place opposite, turn around: Opposites? Turn it backward? Upside down? Inside out?
  Rearrange To change order or adjust layout: Other sequence? Change pace?

Felice Kaufmann, Ph. D., lives in Bethesda, Maryland, and holds an appointment in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Kentucky Medical Center. She serves on the Board Of Directors of the National Association for Gifted Children and the Executive Board of The Association for the Gifted. Dr. Kaufmann received her master’s degree from Columbia Teachers College and her doctoral degree from the University of Georgia. She currently provides Workshops for school systems, museums, and other teaching facilities on the topics of underachievement, creative problem solving, and motivational strategies.

Kaufmann, Ph. D., Felice. “Reappraising Praise: Responding to Visitors’ Answers” The Docent Educator 1.3 (Spring 1993): 6.-7.

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