Low-effort success mustn't be praised

18th September 2009 at 01:00

Parents and teachers try their best to boost children's confidence and motivation to learn. Unfortunately, they often go about it in the wrong way. Instead of confident and motivated children, we are seeing students who are afraid of challenges and who would rather coast than learn. Why is this?

In their zeal to build confidence, parents and teachers are instilling the wrong mindset, and might be harming our kids with well-meant praise.

Students can have different mindsets about their intelligence. Those with a "fixed mindset" believe their intelligence is simply a fixed trait - they have a certain amount and that's that. Now when students believe their intelligence is fixed, they worry about how much they have. They are afraid to tackle tasks that might reveal a deficiency. In fact, when they are given a choice between a task that will make them look clever and a harder one that they can learn from, the majority choose the first.

Students who hold a "growth mindset" believe their intelligence is something they can develop - and neuroscience research is supporting the idea that intelligence can be enhanced through learning. When students hold this belief, they don't waste time worrying how intelligent they are right now. They focus on how to become more intelligent. So when they are given a choice between looking clever and struggling to learn something new, they opt for the latter.

Students with the two mindsets also have completely different attitudes toward effort. Those with a fixed mindset hate effort. They believe that if you are clever, everything should come naturally (and that if you need to work hard at something then you are clearly not good at it). I believe this is why many very bright students stop working in school when it becomes difficult. They have perhaps coasted along feeling more clever than the others. They now have the choice of struggling with the new, difficult material and feeling stupid, or withdrawing their effort and making believe they don't care. Many choose the low-effort route.

However, students with a growth mindset value effort. They believe that effort is what powers their ability and increases it. They believe that even geniuses have to work hard for their inventions and discoveries - and they're right.

Finally, students with the two mindsets differ dramatically in their resilience following setbacks. Fixed mindset students see setbacks as indictments of their intelligence and tend to give up or become defensive, instead of addressing the problem. Growth-mindset students step up their effort, try different strategies, or seek further instruction. We have shown that because of their focus on learning, their belief in effort, and their resilience, students with a growth mindset as a group do better in school, especially in difficult courses or during difficult school transitions.

So, can mindsets be taught? Yes! Mindsets tend to be pretty stable when left alone but, because we now understand them, we can change them. In our own work and the work of Joshua Aronson and Catherine Good, students have been taught a growth mindset. In workshops, they learned that the brain is like a muscle which gets stronger with exercise and that every time they stretch themselves to learn something new, their brain forms new connections - and over time they get smarter.

It has become received wisdom in modern times that praise is good. But we have found in our research that praising children's intelligence or talent can be harmful. Why? Praise for intelligence puts children into a fixed mindset, with all of its vulnerabilities. It makes them afraid of challenges and, when they hit difficulty, it makes them give up, perform poorly and then lie about it. Their egos are so wrapped up in being clever that they cannot face up to a failure.

What's the alternative? It's praising the process children engage in. When we praise children's effort or strategies, they then opt for challenges and they remain engaged and effective even in the face of great difficulty. This is because, when we praise the process, we are telling them that we value not brilliance, but learning. We are telling them why they succeeded and how they can succeed again in the future.

Here are ways to keep the focus on process: "You really studied for your exam and your grade shows it!" "You tried a lot of different ways to solve that problem until you found one that worked. That's great." Or: "This is too easy. Let's do something that's harder so we can have more fun." "You got an A without much work. You must not have learned much."

It is important not to praise low-effort successes. Such praise tells children that they are clever only when something comes quickly and easily to them. Try the process praise. It works. Ironically, parents sometimes have trouble giving up intelligence praise because it makes them feel good.

More and more research from cognitive psychology and neuroscience is showing that the brain is a dynamic organ that changes with learning and that intellectual abilities can be developed. When I was a young researcher just starting out, I was fascinated by students who relished challenges and who welcomed setbacks. I was determined to discover their secret and bottle it. Their secret is a growth mindset, and it is something we can give to all students.

Carol S Dweck is professor of psychology at Stanford University, California, and author of `Mindset: The New Psychology of Success'. She will give a keynote address at the Scottish Learning Festival in Glasgow next Wednesday.

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