In an earlier post, I wrote about Po Bronson’s New York Magazine article on praise. In it, he covers recent research that shows how praising students for their effort (which they can control) increases motivation, but praising students for their intelligence (which they can’t control) undermines motivation.
“In a single semester, Blackwell reversed the students’ longtime trend of decreasing math grades.
“The only difference between the control group and the test group were two lessons, a total of 50 minutes spent teaching not math but a single idea: that the brain is a muscle. Giving it a harder workout makes you smarter. That alone improved their math scores.”
I recently had an opportunity to test this out with a rising 5th grader. I asked him to do three pages from his workbook for our next meeting. He came back the next week having completed most of it… in the car on the way to tutoring that day.
Clearly, this pretty much defeated the point of giving him homework, because he was still doing all his math in one big lump all on the same day. Remembering what I’d learned from reading Carol Dweck, I seized this opportunity to explain to him that the brain is like a muscle: when you use it, it gets stronger. And like a muscle, when you spread out your workouts, you don’t have to train as much. I told him that it was great that he’d done most of the work, but it would help him even more if he spaced it out.
We spent some time creating a better plan for the next week. I tried to be really autonomy supportive. I asked him which days would be good to do math work, and labeled the pages of the workbook with the dates he picked. We talked about what time of day would work best for him, and where in his house he liked to do his homework.
I remembered what Carol Dweck had said, that it’s much more likely that we’ll actually things we don’t really want to do if we visualize ourselves doing them instead of just having some sort of vague plan. So after we had picked his dates, times, and location, I asked him to close his eyes and visualize himself finishing dinner, carrying his plates to the kitchen, walking to the living room, picking up his workbook, and sitting down and doing a page of math.
So… it worked!!!!! Next week, when he came back, he had done all three pages from the workbook! Although he’d changed the plan a little bit, and practiced 2 days instead of 3, it was a huge improvement over the past week.
The absolute best part of all was when his Mom picked him up and I commented on the improvement in him doing his work, she said, “That was all him.” This rising fifth-grader had taken total responsibility for the plan!!!