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Growth mindset & how to (and how NOT to) praise our students

We all are kind of used to telling our children how SMART they are, when we see them accomplish something. Well, fairly recent research in neuroscience is telling us how wrong that actually is!

The stunning result is that praising children for being SMART or intelligent actually HINDERS them!

brain workout

Instead, we should praise them (somewhat sparingly) for their effort and hard work, but NOT for being good/smart/great/intelligent.

The reason for this as follows: when you praise a child for being smart, the child comes to BELIEVE he IS smart. Then, later on, when a task or problem comes along (and it will!) where the child struggles and cannot do it easily, the child will start shying away from such tasks... for FEAR of being found as "not smart".

These experiences produce what scientists call "a fixed mindset" — where a person believes intelligence is fixed and not changing. But, it is a mindset that HINDERS brain growth AND the growth of one's intelligence. A person with a fixed mindset avoids challenges.

And, this "fixed mindset" can already be created in the first 3 years of life... as parents, daycare workers, relatives, and so on praise the baby/child for being "smart."

Instead, we should strive to develop a "growth mindset" in our children and students. A person with growth mindset sees difficult tasks as OPPORTUNITIES for growth. By putting forth some effort into learning, we can actually grow our brain!

synapse - brain growth

Here's something I find amazing: each time you make a mistake in math and realize it, your BRAIN makes a new synapse (connection between neurons). I don't mean a simple calculation mistake, but a mistake in the actual ideas of math.

Then, when you THINK about your mistake and try to overcome it... there is MORE brain growth... MORE synapses!

Neuroscientists have also found that people with growth mindset experience MORE brain growth from mistakes than people with fixed mindset.

In this video by Carol Dweck, children were first given easy puzzles, and they were praised in two different ways: either praised for being smart or praised for effort. The researchers then observed the difference in the children's attitudes when they were given much harder puzzles to solve.

Lastly, a quote from an interview with Carol Dweck. She uses the term "mastery-oriented" to mean the "growth mindset".

Teachers should focus on students' efforts and not on their abilities. When students succeed, teachers should praise their efforts or their strategies, not their intelligence. (Contrary to popular opinion, praising intelligence backfires by making students overly concerned with how smart they are and overly vulnerable to failure.)

When students fail, teachers should also give feedback about effort or strategies — what the student did wrong and what he or she could do now. We have shown that this is a key ingredient in creating mastery-oriented students.

In other words, teachers should help students value effort. Too many students think effort is only for the inept. Yet sustained effort over time is the key to outstanding achievement.

In a related vein, teachers should teach students to relish a challenge. Rather than praising students for doing well on easy tasks, they should convey that doing easy tasks is a waste of time. They should transmit the joy of confronting a challenge and of struggling to find strategies that work.


By Maria Miller

See also

The Praise Puzzle: How To Motivate Kids To Be Successful
Researchers put some children through a fascinating puzzle test, and saw some surprising results.

How to Learn Math
How to Learn Math is a free online course by professor Jo Boaler from Standford University. Many people have had negative experiences with math, and end up disliking math or failing. This class will give learners of math the information they need to become powerful math learners, it will correct any misconceptions they have about what math is, and it will teach them about their own potential to succeed and the strategies needed to approach math effectively.

Maria: The thoughts in this article stem from this course. I took myself several years ago, and so did my daughters. It truly is wonderful, and can be life-changing to some!




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