Would you rather be told that you’re smart or that you’re a hard worker? You’d be surprised at which type of praise is more motivating. Carol Dweck, PhD, a researcher at Stanford University, has spent her career looking at the psychology of motivation and praise. Her book, Mindset, was published in 2007, but she first popped up on my radar in an article by Malcolm Gladwell, “The Talent Myth,” in The New Yorker (July 22, 2002 – PDF). The article centered on what happened with Enron, which set out to hire “the best and the brightest,” yet went into bankruptcy. I was drawn in from the first paragraph, but when the article described Carol Dweck’s research, I had that rare experience of feeling my perception of the world shift a bit. I reread that part, thought some more, reread it again, then found myself bringing the subject up with everyone I knew (whether or not they seemed interested – such are my social skills).
Without going into great detail, here’s the stunning kernel of Dweck’s research: Praising people (which in my life mostly means kids) for being smart or talented is not the way to go if you want that person to feel encouraged to keep trying, keep growing, and to have the “fire in the belly” that will lead them to success. Why not?
Here’s a quick summary of one of Dweck’s studies cited in the Gladwell article: Two groups of preadolescent students were given a “test full of challenging problems.” After the test session, one group of students was praised for their intelligence, the other for their effort. In subsequent tests, some of which were more difficult, the performance of the group praised for effort actually DID put forth effort and their performance improved. Those praised for their intelligence showed more and more reluctance to try challenging problems and their scores deteriorated. Furthermore, when both groups of students were asked to write to students at another school to describe their experience in the study, 40% of those praised for intelligence lied about their scores, claiming they were higher than they really were. A similar study with similar results is described in the article “How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise”.
In explaining the phenomenon that praise for intelligence can backfire and lead to problems with motivation, Dweck uses a paradigm analogous to the familiar debate about nature vs. nurture, but she calls it a “fixed mindset” vs. a “growth mindset.” Someone with a fixed mindset believes that intelligence and talent are innate; if you’ve got it, you’ve got it. A growth mindset assumes, on the other hand, that putting forth effort makes people smarter. Telling kids they’re smart may make them feel good in the short term, but also leads them to believe that they must prove themselves smart at every turn. This leads them to avoid the risk of engaging in any activity in which they might not be up to snuff. As a Good Morning America article “Why Praise Can Be Bad for Your Kids” summarizes: “Kids who get too much praise [for being brilliant, etc.] are less likely to take risks, are highly sensitive to failure and are more likely to give up when faced with a challenge.”
So, what kind of praise encourages continued effort? Specific praise for behavior that is under the kid’s control like persistence, attention, focus, patience, trying new things, asking questions, testing theories, making good guesses, applying something learned to a new situation, appreciating someone else’s hard work, explaining a process to another student, etc, etc. I’m sure you can think of a zillion more. In other words, it’s easier for a kid to be proud of and motivated by something they remember doing (and could recreate) than it is for a kid to feel proud of a trait that’s beyond their control. Additionally, praising hard work in one context could lead to generalization across assignments, academic subjects, and could carry over into extracurricular activities; it would be much harder in a new situation for a kid to try to apply “being smart” than it would be to just continue working hard.
Adopt a growth mindset and pass that on to your students / kids. Teach them that effort strengthens both bodies and brains. In essence, praise them for what they do, not for who they are.
Lots more information, including all articles mentioned above can be found at www.mindsetonline.com.