Po Bronson’s awesome New York Magazine article, The Power (and Peril) of Praising Your Kids, reports on psychologist Carol Dweck, who has been researching the effect of praise on students for ten years. In a series of experiments with 400 fifth-graders, research assistants gave students a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of puzzles.
When the students finished, they were given their score and a single line of praise: either “you must be smart at this,” or “you must have tried really hard.” In the second round of tests, students could either pick an easy test like the first one, or a harder test. Ninety percent of those praised for their effort picked the harder one. The majority of students praised for their intelligence picked the easier one.
Here’s where it gets really crazy. In a third round, all students were given a very difficult test designed for students a grade ahead of them. Everyone failed. The students who were praised for their innate intelligence were “sweating and miserable” and assumed that because they couldn’t figure out the puzzles, they weren’t smart after all. The students who were praised for their effort just tried harder, and “many of them remarked, unprovoked, ‘This is my favorite test.’”
Dweck had suspected that praise could backfire, but even she was surprised by the magnitude of the effect. “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control,” she explains. “They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.”
I feel like I’m already extremely sensitive to every word I say to my students. I would never say anything to imply that they weren’t capable of doing something. In my experience, students respond extremely well to the praise and encouragement that I give them, and I believe it helps them feel more confident and relaxed about the learning process. A lot of my praise is pretty general: “Awesome!” “You got it!” “Good work!” “Great!”, right after they do something correctly or finish a problem. But I wouldn’t be surprised if a few “You’re so smart!”s or “You’re good at this!”s slipped in there.
Would that be so bad? By the time my students have come to me, they’ve probably gotten a lot of negative feedback on their math abilities, be it objective or subjective. And they probably have a lot of negative self-talk. If someone’s convinced that they’re “bad at math,” is it really wrong to indicate that they have natural ability at some point?
However, reading about this research is causing me to examine my entire attitude toward praise. Remembering one particular incident really makes me cringe. I had a student who had told me in the past that he loved Latin. He was struggling in school, and I wanted to encourage him. I remembered that in Boston, in addition to the high demand for math tutors, there was also a really high demand for Latin tutors, since a lot of middle and high schools require Latin.
I mentioned this to him in the context of, “You’re good at Latin, maybe you’d enjoy tutoring people in it, and you could make a ton of money,” and he responded, “I never said that I was good at Latin. I said that I liked Latin.” I felt like the worst tutor in the universe. I thought I was encouraging him, but actually, I was praising an “innate capability” he himself didn’t believe he possessed. I wish I could take back what I had said.