Sunday, 24 April 2016

Purple Praise: a spoon full of sugar helps the marking go down

A couple of months ago a new student in a year called me over to his desk. I had recently marked a piece of work. He said, ‘Where’s the nice comment?’ I looked at him dumbfound. He expected all marking to have something positive said about it. Does all marking have to start with a positive comment? Or does marking need an emphasis on positive praise?

When I take my car in for a service and MOT, I get a sheet of paper with some details about the car. It tells me lots of stuff about how the car and what I need to do as the owner. But, I don’t get anything personal written down on the sheet from the garage. We love your collection of CDs. We like the sticker in the back window. We are impressed with your collection of sunglasses. Nor, do I get something personal about the car. We love how the car turns corners. We love how pretty the tires are. The process is purely functional as the car needs to pass a series of safety tests. Never do I leave a garage feeling that the experience wasn’t personal enough. Never do I leave a garage feeling unmotivated and let down. I might be depressed with the amount of money I end up paying, but I never feel let down by a lack of niceness about the experience.

There is an unwritten rule about marking. I think it was Mary Poppins who started it off. We think, no feel, that we should be saying something positive about all pieces of work. We spend a lot of it comforting egos.  We have structures for doing this ‘WWW’(What Went Well) or ‘two stars and a wish’. The emphasis is always on the positive. And, if I am honest, I have written some absolute drivel in the past for the sake of positivity. If you want to see empty, bland, beige writing, pick up any exercise book in secondary schools. The first comment written by the teacher will be bland McBlandy bland face. Good use of …. Good, you have…  Well done for …  It is all bland.

I too have sat with a piece of work staring at me, thinking what I could say about the work. And, I have spent hours doing that. Thinking. Thinking. Thinking. I never got the ‘Magic Eye’ pictures in the 1990s, but marking can be akin to them sometimes, staring at something and hoping that something will pop out. When you have spent ten minutes searching for a piece of positivity, you then have to find another one as the school you work for enforces that all feedback includes two positive comments.

A few years ago I stopped being so personal, or at least I limited what I wrote in exercise books. I stopped searching for the really positive things to say when a student had completed what was expected of them. I only focused on what they needed to work on and improve. I stopped massaging egos and saved myself time and sanity. I also gave myself more time to well mark some more.  

Of course, there is a complex relationship between work, rewards and feedback. If there are no rewards, then a student will be disaffected. But, what if doing the work was enough of a reward? What if students felt the satisfaction of doing work? Not the excitement lottery of what their work will be praised for. It is all leading to the same point, but I think our ‘purple praise’ has taken away the emphasis on the work. We have created a dialogue between the teacher and student, but it is a needy, unreliable, conditional and unwieldy dialogue. A student will only work if they get praised for it. Sir, you never say anything positive about my work.

I don’t get praised for the way I work, but I work really hard. I am conditioned to work hard regardless of who has or hasn’t praised me. I get satisfaction from seeing the work done and completed.

When I see people marking all weekend, I think about this ‘purple praise’. Do the students only work if they are given praise? Does it take them so long for them to mark because of the insistence on praising students personally?  

Marking is about love (according to various people). By marking a piece of work, it shows that you care about that student and that you have read the work. But, what if we have created a bizarre relationship by doing that? A relationship built on ‘need’ and not a mutual co-existence. The teacher’s role is purely to fulfil the needs of a student. I have had relationships with people built on need. I had to praise and flatter the person all the time, but they didn’t give a hoot about me. Maybe that is what we are doing with marking, building a dependency and a need. Interesting, that we have teachers across the land focusing on ‘grit’ and ‘resilience’ in the classroom. Maybe our marking is the exact cause of this indirectly. Our students aren’t gritty enough because we are praising them for everything they do. Our students aren’t resilient enough because they are seeing everything in a positive way with ‘positive praise’.        

The reward for work should be the satisfaction gained from completing the work. The reward should not be a comment from a demigod teacher. As a student, myself, there was nothing better than the reward of seeing several pages written for an essay. The smug, pleased satisfaction was addictive and led me to university. Primary school is about training students to work, and there, praise is needed. Secondary school is about students working on their own with less praise and becoming independent. Independence is about a ‘praiseless’ context. Our praise-led curriculums in secondary schools stop independence.   

Before people go all mad and throw their peppermint tea at me for being cruel, hurtful about a child’s feelings. Listen: if we stop the purple praise, you stop the negativity. Let’s just get them doing the work. I tell students what they need to improve on. That for me is the most important thing. It’s what I do to school for. Making them better. If I do want to praise, I do it verbally and personally.

Thanks for reading,



  1. Marks are garbage. That's what is wrong. The role of the teacher is to provide guidance and feedback. This should have both positive and negative aspects and refer to the content and not just be personal "Good job" etc .....

    So I do disagree but do agree that if the "praise" doesn't reference the work, the source - it indeed is "purple".

  2. Actually, you should also talk about what your student need to work on and improve but sometimes let you say the really positive things when your student had completed what was expected of them

  3. I rely on the tiny tick, standard tick, double tick, and triple tick, which I place exactly where the praiseworthy bits are. They know my code now. If I'm in any doubt that they'll understand why I've ticked, I'll write a word or two in the margin. But mostly I reserve summative comments for improvement.

  4. I certainly think that praise for praise's sake is nonsense and the children see through it. Children do however need to know what they have done right. They may not be as certain about that as we may believe. What annoys me more is the 'progress' that should be seen in student's work over short periods of time. Sometimes it is progress when they 'do what is right' over a sustained period without 'improving' on anything else.


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