Fixing a Child’s View of Their Intelligence
In the past week I have read two articles:
Giving Good Praise to Girls by Katrina Schwartz on KQED.
The Learning Myth: Why I’ll Never Tell My Son He’s Smart by Salman Khan of The Khan Academy.
Both articles warning against praising children for natural talent or ability or for completing tasks simply by using said natural ability.
Praising natural ability or intelligence can have unforeseen negative effects by making a child feel as if they are not smart if they have to struggle, persevere or even fail at a task. This in turn leads to giving up when they struggle, especially in girls.
The KQED article looks primarily at preventing girls from having a fixed view of their intelligence and Khan’s article drives home the point of exercising the brain as a muscle, but both quote and pull from studies by Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University. The hypothesis for which was probably based on total logic and common sense, if a child is continually praised for something that comes naturally, why on earth would they want to do something that didn’t come naturally if no praise was to be forthcoming?
If children shy away from difficult tasks because they believe they cannot complete them or affirmation will not be delivered they are shying away from a growing experience. We are in effect stunting their growth.
That, of course, is over simplifying the problem and Khan expands on this in his piece, ‘Researchers have known for some time that the brain is like a muscle; that the more you use it, the more it grows. They’ve found that neural connections form and deepen most when we make mistakes doing difficult tasks rather than repeatedly having success with easy ones. What this means is that our intelligence is not fixed, and the best way that we can grow our intelligence is to embrace tasks where we might struggle and fail.’
By why is this worse with girls?
“Of all the subjects on earth, people think math is the most fixed,” Dweck said. “It’s a gift, you either have it or you don’t. And that it’s most indicative of your intelligence.” This attitude presents an especially sticky problem to educators working to boost girls’ interest and passion for science, technology, engineering and math – STEM subjects. For many boys, believing math is a fixed ability doesn’t hamper achievement — they just assume they have it, Dweck said. But girls don’t seem to possess that same confidence, and in their efforts to achieve perfection, Dweck’s research shows they shy away from subjects where they might fail.
Therefore, the most encouraging and fruitful praise we can give is when our students and children show persistence and effort, even if the result is wrong we need to praise the desire to finish something difficult. To spread the message that it is better to try something hard than finish something easy. As Khan’s son delightfully says when he struggled with a new word, “I think I could feel my brain growing”.
Perhaps this post should be entitled, ‘Failure in small doses is good’ or ‘Praise the Process Not the Result’ but whatever we choose to call it the verdict is in and all the articles I have read asking for children to be taught ‘grit and determination’ in school comes round full circle to the phrase that I know to be true for me – Nothing easy is ever truly satisfying.