Wednesday, September 9, 2015

How "Try" and "Do Your Best" Are Ruining Your Students' Self Esteem

In elementary, middle, and even high schools, teachers frequently tell their students the following:

"As long as you do your best, you are a winner!"
"The score doesn't matter; do your best!"
"Remember, try to answer each question."
"Try to complete each section to the best of your ability."

or, the ever present comment:

"Try to do your best!"

You may be thinking: "Good for them! Encouraging their students to succeed!" But what if I told you you are wrong?

Sure, on the surface, each of the above comments seem to be encouraging, even pushing students to succeed. However, each comment has an underlying tone of eventual, unavoidable failure.


That is right. Telling your students to "try" and "do their best" is setting them up for failure, and here is why:

1. "Try" implies effort without success.

By definition, try literally means "to make an effort or attempt to do something." Okay . . . so, that is exactly what we want our students to do, right? Wrong. We want our students to actually do.

The distinction between "trying" and "doing" are pretty self-evident: "try" implies an attempt without success, whereas "do" implies the successful completion of a goal/task.

So telling your student to "Try to answer each question" is basically the same as saying "Attempt to answer each question, but I don't really expect you to answer each one."

2. "Do your best" is one of the worst self-esteem builders. Ever.

At this point, you may be ready to close the tab and avoid my blog like the plague, but hear me out.

When we tell our students to "do their best," we are not only lying to them; we are setting them up for failure.

What do I mean?

What if, for example, a student you told to "do his best" receives an F on the assignment? Because the idea of "doing our best" is so ingrained in students' brains, that student may think "I did my best, and I got an F. I am not good/smart/trying enough to make a better grade."

Many teachers use these phrases to build their students up, to give them the confidence to attempt new things. But with an underlying message of eventual failure, I find these phrases to be abhorrent. In fact, I try to avoid these phrases at all costs, and even reprimand my students when they use them.

My goal as a teacher is to help my students grow, and fortunately, the human brain is constantly changing and "growing" all the time. My students learn new things every day.

Do I want them to acquire new skills? Yes.

Do I want them to be open to new ideas? Yes.

Do I want them to practice their skills? Yes.

Do I want them to feel confident enough to attempt new things? Of course.

But, ultimately, I want them to have realistic expectations about their own abilities right now so they understand the need for practice, the opportunities for growth, and the need for persistence.

What do you think about "try" and "do your best"?

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