Look Smart, Don’t Make Mistakes

March 22, 2013

New research conducted by Carol Dwek of Columbia University found that praising kids for being “smart” does not prevent them from underperforming; in fact it may actually cause it.  Dweck spent ten years doing a series of experiments with 400 fifth grade students in the New York Public School System.   The researchers would individually give the students a non-verbal IQ test that was designed to be easy enough for all students to do well.  These tests consisted of series of puzzles that students were required to solve.  Once, the child completed the assessment, students were told their score and given one line of praise.  Students were divided into two groups.  One group was praised for their intelligence with, “You must be smart at this,” and the other group was praised for their effort with, “You must have worked really hard.”  Then the students were given a choice of test for the second round.  The student could take an easy test that would be just like the first or a more difficult test where they were guaranteed to “learn a lot from attempting the puzzles.”  Ninety percent of the students who were praised for their effort chose the harder test for the second round.  Conversely, of the students who were praised for being smart, the majority chose the easy test and with it guaranteed success.

     For me this raises the question, does too much praise based on intelligence, create a fear of failure in students that prevents them from trying?  It seems that as they are praised for being smart, kids internalize the message, “look smart- don’t risk making mistakes.”  A second round of experiments by Dweck seems to point to this conclusion.  In this round, students were given a much more difficult test where everyone failed.  The kids who were praised for their intelligence assumed that their failure was evidence that they weren’t smart at all.  They were miserable.  In the group where students were praised for their effort, the kids assumed that they hadn’t focused hard enough.  They responded by being more involved.  These students felt challenged and positive remarking, “This is my favorite test.”  When both groups were given a third test that was easy again, the group praised for effort showed a 30% increase in score, while the group praised for being smart showed a 20% decrease in score.  Could this be an explanation of why many of our brightest students are underperforming in school, and if so what can we do about it?

     Upon interviewing the students, Dweck’s team found that students who think that innate intelligence is the key to success begin to discount the value of hard work.  This results in a stigma on effort among the “smart kids”.  They think that being smart means that you shouldn’t have to try and showing that you’re trying means that you’re not that smart.   This does not give them a mechanism to cope with failure which can lead to bad behaviors such as lying or cheating to avoid failure.   Conversely, when students are praised for their effort it gives them control and power.  It teaches them that intelligence can be developed and that their effort has an impact on their performance.  So what can parents do to develop this healthy work ethic and sense of control?  Here are some suggestions from the experts:

  1. If you are going to give praise, make sure that it is specific, focused and skill or task-oriented.   When you are giving praise, switch from I to you.   So, instead of saying, “Good job!  I think you are so smart at this!” try “You worked very hard on that math problem to arrive at the correct answer.  You should be proud of yourself.”
  2. Try praise free comments.  For example, “What did you like best about that project?”
  3. Make sure that praise is sincere.  Children can tell when it is not and often take this in exactly the opposite way that the parent or teacher intended.  They think that the adult is giving them this empty praise because they lack skill or are not smart enough.
  4. Teach kids that the brain is like a muscle and giving it a harder workout makes you smarter. Kids who received study skills training along with the information that intelligence can be developed improved their grades and study habits.
  5. Rewards and praise must be intermittent.  If praise and rewards for performance are too frequent, kids will not develop persistence.  The effort will stop when the rewards disappear.  And it is an important life lesson to learn that frustration can be worked through.

-Nina Parrish, M.Ed.

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