In recent TV ads, AT&T features four schoolchildren—endearingly cute or incredibly annoying, depending on the viewer—who respond to an adult moderator’s question, “What’s better, bigger or smaller?”
If these children were asked, “What’s better, smarter or harder-working?” I bet they’d respond, “Smarter!”
But they’d be wrong. According to Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, proud parents and teachers who praise children for being “smart” can cause problems in the long run. Children who are repeatedly praised for being smart come to see intelligence as a fixed trait, a quality you have more or less of and there’s nothing you can do about it.
“Students with this fixed mind-set become excessively concerned with how smart they are,” says Dweck. Many become easily frustrated if they cannot immediately solve a problem.
In the face of setbacks, they feel like they have failed. And so they avoid challenges. They become intent on “seeking tasks that will prove their intelligence and avoiding ones that might not. The desire to learn takes a backseat.”
Fostering a “Growth Mind-Set”
In contrast to this “fixed mind-set,” Dweck describes a “growth mind-set” that can be fostered in part by praising children for hard work and persistence—“I’m so proud of your hard work on that science project. You really stuck with it!”
Such praise can motivate kids to get smarter, if by “smarter” we mean not simply high IQ but also a willingness to meet challenges by exploring new strategies. Focusing on a “growth mind-set” can foster an eagerness to dig into a problem rather than feel defeated by initial difficulties.
Children praised for hard work and effort, says Dweck, “believe that their intellectual ability is something they can develop through effort and education. . . Not worrying about how smart they will appear, they take on challenges and stick to them.”
Dweck also says that “process” praise—praise for engagement, perseverance, improvement, and the like—can help motivate young learners. Process praise can sound like this:
- I really admire all the work you put into that essay. You got your first draft done early, and then you put a lot of work into revising. You added helpful details and strong examples. That’s great!
- Wow, you really stuck with that tough math problem. You tried a lot of different strategies to solve it, and even when it got frustrating, you kept on trying.
- I’m excited about your idea for the science project. It will be really interesting to see what you discover in your research. And I know you’ll be careful when you conduct your experiment and record the results.
Such praise tells students what they've done to be successful and what they need to do to succeed in the future.
In the K12 online curriculum, we ask students to put many hours of focused effort into solving math problems, writing and revising essays, carefully conducting science experiments, and much more. It can be a challenging experience, and a rewarding one, especially if students are praised for engaging with the lessons, persisting in the needed practice, and rising to the challenges. For an example, here’s a video about K12’s virtual science labs that reward students who invest concentrated effort.
We owe it to our students to expect and acknowledge hard work. For parents and teachers, the smart thing is not to call attention to how smart our kids are, but to encourage and praise them for their efforts.
John Holdren is senior vice president of content and curriculum of K¹². Previously, he was vice president and director of research and publications for the Core Knowledge Foundation, where he (along with E. D. Hirsch, Jr.) co-edited What Your First Grader Needs to Know and companion volumes in the Core Knowledge Series of resource books. He taught literature and writing at the University of Virginia and Harvard University, as well as high school English at an independent school in Charlottesville, Virginia. Mr. Holdren holds a BA from Johns Hopkins University and an MA in English and American Literature from the University of Virginia. To learn more about K12, please visit K12.com.
Carol S. Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (New York: Ballantine Books, Random House, 2006).
Carol S. Dweck, “The Perils and Promises of Praise,” Educational Leadership 65:2 (Oct. 2007): 34-39. (http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/oct07/vol65/num02/The-Perils-and-Promises-of-Praise.aspx)
Claudia M. Mueller and Carol S. Dweck, “Praise for Intelligence Can Undermine Children's Motivation and Performance,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 75:1 (1998): 33. (http://www.uky.edu/~eushe2/mrg/MuellerDweck1998.pdf)