education philosopher

Want to Raise Tenacious Kids? Be Careful in How Your Praise.

Posted in Self-esteem movement, Teaching by KevinCK on July 6, 2009

Journalist Po Bronson wrote a 2007 articlethat recently became the springboard for his book Nurtureshock (cowritten by Ashley Merryman). The article runs counter to what used to be conventional wisdom about praising kids for intelligence. “[A] growing body of research strongly suggests…  [that g]iving kids the label of “smart” does not prevent them from underperforming. It might actually be causing it.”

good jobAt first blush, this may sound bizzare. You mean we shouldn’t praise our kids for their smarts?, one might ask. Actually, that is what Bronson – and many researchers in child psychology – are concluding. One of the most touted researchers (brought up both in Bronson’s Nurtureshockand Daniel Coyle’s magnificent book The Talent Code) is Carol Dweck.

Dweck and her team gave several fifth-grade classes a non-verbal test of puzzles, easy enough that they could be quickly solved. After grading the tests (almost all good grades), the researchers told half of the “subjects” that they did well and must be very smart. The other half of the “subjects” were told that they did well, and must have worked very hard. After this, all students were offered a choice: take another test of about the same ease, or take a harder test.

The results: almost uniformly, the students praised for smarts chose to take a similar test while the students praised for effort chose the harder test. Dweck and her group repeated this test several times with different classes and got the same result each time. When effort is praised, kids respond better to challenge than when smarts and intelligence are praised.

“When we praise children for their intelligence,” Dweck wrote in her study summary, “we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.” And that’s what the fifth-graders had done: They’d chosen to look smart and avoid the risk of being embarrassed.

As a former public school educator, I can easily recall many embodiments of this very principal from my classes. And I used to be guilty of doing exactly what Dweck tells us to avoid: I used to praise kids for their intelligence first, and effort later.

Coincidentally, I read this study (and Coyle’s above-listed book that mentions it) before final exams of the 08/09 school year. Subsequently, I decided to try something different. If kids try hardest when effort, rather than smarts, are praised, my final project for “Study Skills” class would attempt to channel that: I would assign a writing prompt, allowing students to turn in as many drafts as they wanted until they got the grade they wanted. I would make an effort not to praise students gifts for writing, but for effort. “I can tell you really put some thought into this one.” “I like how you corrected these mistakes. That must have taken some good work.” “Wow! You really put some time in on this one! Keep going!”

The results? Only three of my kids (all special education students with academic deficits) got C’s or better, and most got A’s. About half of my kids turned in more than 3 drafts, and one student turned in 5. This is all the more interesting becuase several teachers – who know the kids I deal with in these classes – advised me that the project may be too hard for them and that they were apt to “check out” on me. Not so. The more I recognized their effort, the more they wanted to show me more. It was phenomenal.

Of course, I also took a more controversial step: I resisted the urge to praise when praise was not deserved. If someone turned in a paper that I did not think had been worked on very hard, I told them so. If someone did not turn in a long enough paper, I told them so. And if someone turned in a decent paper that missed being “good” by a hair, I told them so. I have never been a fan of artificial praise (or low expectations) and I did not give out fake praise. (This, incidentally, is what many well-meaning teachers do without noticing it. At least, in my experience.)

Sadly, Bronson notes that schools are not the only culprits of shallow praise, over-praise, and overemphasis-on-smarts praise.

But that’s at school, as a teacher. At home, old habits die hard. Her 8-year-old daughter and her 5-year-old son are indeed smart, and sometimes she hears herself saying, “You’re great. You did it. You’re smart.” When I press her on this, Needleman says that what comes out of academia often feels artificial. “When I read the mock dialogues, my first thought is, Oh, please. How corny.

Needleman’s reaction, I believe, is an outgrowth of being culturally imbued in the “self-esteem movement,” which told us that the best thing we can do for our kids is encourage them and tell them how great they are, lest their self-esteem shatter. This, of course, takes a very narrow view of both “self-esteem” and “encourage.” By the lights of the self-esteem movement, “self-esteem” means “how one feels about oneself” with a blind eye to any real feeling of achievement or overcoming struggle (which is to be avoided, because a child may not come out the victor). By the lights of the ‘self-esteem movement,” “encourage” means “to cheerlead” rather than to guide and direct.

The best way to priase our kids seems to be to follow some simple rules:

(a) praise for effort more than smarts (even though smarts can be praised, kids need to be reminded that effort is a key component to success. If they did not try their best, praise may best be minimized.)

(b) praise first, critique next. (Tell them what they did right and celebrate it. But then, find a good way to throw in thoughts about what they can do next time to make  the success even better. That way, they will want to try and improve, and also, be reminded that they can always do better.)

(c) do not praise when it is not deserved. (I remember one of my D average students showing off a report card with straight C’s. I told him that I am glad he brought them up, but he could do better. He looked deflated, but I explained it thus: C’s are better than D’s, but C’s are average, and that I knew he could get B’s. As awkward as it sounds, I feared that if I praised the C’s, he may be content with them.

In other words, praising a student is a double-edged sword: on the one hand, we want our kids to be proud when they do well. On the other, praise can inadvertently give children the go-ahead to be content and “rest on their laurels.” The best way to handle praise is to realize this double-edged sword and make sure to praise in a way that kids stay hungry for more.


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