What do Kids Hear When Teachers Say “Good, but More”?

With the start of school, I’m thinking about learning.  Specifically about helping my children learn at their best.

So, I’m applying lessons learned last year in my role as PTA Mom and tutor to kids with difficulty:

To elaborate on teachers’ expectations

Homework Hints

Teachers' comments on our boys homework often look like this:

“Good start” “More detail” “Go deeper” “So....?” “Explain” “Conclusions?” “IS THIS ALL?!!!!”

In summary:  ELABORATE!

This feedback is somewhat helpful AND confusing for children and parents.  These comments refer to insufficient past performance.   They do not indicate the requirements for success.

Dig a Hole for a Fruit Tree

Let’s imagine a biology class and the teacher assigns the task of digging a hole to plant a tree.  A cactus-loving student digs a hole three inches (10cm) in diameter and depth, just the right size to hold one of those tiny cactuses sold for $1 at the checkout counter of the local DIY shop.

The teacher had in mind to plant small fruit tree.  “Deeper,” she instructs.

The student mutters that cacti have fruit yet nonetheless doubles his effort and proudly presents his hole large enough to fit a bonsai apple tree.  (Why does the teacher want to plant a bonsai outside, he wonders!)

The instructor once again responds, “More.”

It’s the same feedback for distinctively different work!  Surely the teacher noticed the significant improvement in performance...she must have meant just a smidgen of additional effort is required to perfect the task.

Not so.  She’s expecting another doubling of effort.

“You mean you want me to bury myself in dirt?!  I thought you wanted a hole for a plant!”

Kids’ Perspective vs. Adults’ View

“More” is such a frustrating instruction because desired results remains unclear.

In the above situation, the child obeyed and followed instructions.  He expected recognition and received dismissal instead.

From the adult perspective, I wonder if we assume the kids understand more than they do.

Insights from Harvard Business School for our Kids' Education

I recently reviewed notes from my MBA studies and discovered that I saved the professor's grading criteria.   

The professors' aim is for students to succeed.  Therefore they clearly informed us how they evaluated work.  "A good paper would include..." and they enumerated the criteria .

"A great answer would also ..." include links between concepts and how specific actions or decisions had impacted future opporturnities.

Re-reading these notes brought me back to the initial aha-moment when "good" and "excellent" were so clearly differentiated and excellence became all the more attainable and, as such, attractive.

Elaboration à la French School System

In my PTA Mom role, I met with the entire teaching staff of our youngest son.  In the French school system, it felt like being on trial.  Myself and one other parent settled on one side of the room and the school administrators and junior high teachers sat opposing us.  In this manner we reviewed every child’s grades and comments.  Grueling.

The students with greatest difficulty often received the most attention.  For the head of the class, they say, “Excellent.  No problem.” and move on.   A friend held the role before me and her daughter excelled in school.  When the mom returned home after the meeting, the young girl excitedly asked what the teacher’s said about her.  “I lied to my child with imagined rave reviews because the school team had said nothing.”

I resolved to do differently and, when reviewing the head of the class, paused to ask what makes this student particularly excellent.  Basically, how deep is the hole he is digging and what size tree is he planting?


Finally, the biology teacher (!) enumerated what seemed obvious to them all:

-          Not only does this student do his homework.  He makes sure he understands it.  When there is confusion, he comes ready with questions.

-          He shows interest by asking questions.

-          He participates in a way that helps the entire class advance.  (Kids can comment in class to attract attention.)

It was a relief to have these criteria elaborated for me.  I simultaneously knew and discovered them..

Now that these expectations are crystal clear, it's simple and effective to communicate and enforce them.

Hope it will be for you too.

Photos:  Tree planting, Hole digging


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