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Posts Tagged as "Ashley Merryman"

How to make it safe for kids to fail

Monday, January 17th, 2011

I had the great pleasure of meeting one of my intellectual heroes, science journalist Ashley Merryman, and seeing her speak about her book, Nurtureshock: New Thinking About Children.

In her talk, Merryman passionately spoke to the fact that we absolutely need to make it safe for kids to fail. We live in a culture where parents want their kids to succeed at everything they attempt, without realizing that without making mistakes, it is not possible to take risks and actually reach our full potential.

After Merryman’s talk, I overheard moms discussing this in the ladies’ room. How can we make it safe for our kids to fail?, they were asking themselves. From the urgency in their voices, I could tell that Merryman’s message had hit home.

But even though I’ve been mulling over Merryman’s book, NurtureShock, for over a year now, and have several chapters more or less memorized, I wasn’t sure I knew what the answer was either.

I found a partial answer from a completely unrelated source: marketing mastermind Seth Godin’s blog. Godin points out: “There is no category of ‘does risky exploration, never fails.'”

Yet why do we persistently believe this category exists? Whenever I hear a story about an artist, scholar, or athlete who struggled to find success and acceptance, I never fail to be surprised. Jim Carey lived out of a car and bombed his first comedy gig? Drama coaches told Lucille Ball that she “had no future at all as a performer“? Madeline L’Engle’s first book, A Wrinkle in Time, was rejected by 26 publishers before winning the Newbery Medal? Thomas Edison was told he was “too stupid to learn anything”? Oprah Winfrey was fired from her job as a TV reporter because she was “unfit for TV”? Winston Churchill failed sixth grade?

We hear about the successes, but not the failures and struggles. We see the red carpet, the accolades, the public adulation. How would kids know that it’s safe to fail when the media just focuses on the polished final product, not the process of mastery?

One way to communicate to kids that it’s safe to fail is to tell these stories of our heroes’ early failures. If we mess up, it doesn’t mean that we’re not like them. When they were getting started, these heroes really weren’t all that different from us.

Related posts:
Failure is not the enemy
On seriously owning your mistakes
Tips on effective praise from Ashley Merryman
Self-taught heroes: William Kamkwamba, the boy who harnessed the wind

Posts Tagged as "Ashley Merryman"

“This is really neat”

Thursday, August 19th, 2010

Given the counterintuitive new research that has found that certain kinds of praise can undermine student motivation and achievement, I’ve been working over the past year to refine how I praise my students.

Here’s some very specific advice from NurtureShock co-author Ashley Merryman’s blog archive (to read the original, keep scrolling, scrolling, scrolling until you get to the post titled “How not to talk to your kids – Part 4”):

A common praise technique that people use (I know I did it with my tutoring kids… up til a few weeks ago, that is….) is to use a present success to control future performance. For example, if a typically-sloppy child writes an essay that’s atypically legible, a parent or teacher may say, “That’s very neat: you should write all of your papers like this.”

Even if it’s meant as sincere praise and encouragement, the research shows that’s not only an ineffective way to praise. In fact, like praising for intelligence – it can actually damage a child’s performance.

Here’s what is going on. While the first part of the sentence was positive, rather than focusing on that success, the latter part of the sentence (“You should write all like this”) was negative, doubly-so.

First, rather than simply focusing on the present achievement, the second half of the sentence reminds the child about all the past mistakes. Second, it’s an expression of pressure to continue at this level in the future. But the kid may think that the work he just completed was very difficult, and he doubts he can live up to these new expectations.

Even worse, a child who suddenly wrote more legibly did it on his own volition. But if the praiser qualifies the praise with the expectation of future performance, now if the child continues to perform, he’s not doing it because he wanted to: he’s doing it to fulfill the praiser’s expectation.

Basically, the whole exchange kills the kid’s intrinsic motivation to improve. Furthermore, studies have shown that children’s performance actually may go down: they will even intentionally underperform, just to show that they refuse to follow the attempted control. In other words, yes, they do badly just to spite you.

The better thing to have said was, “This is really neat,” and left it at that.

I have been waiting for a year for a chance to try this out with one of my own students. I finally had a chance to implement this a few days ago while tutoring a rising fifth grader online.

He did a particularly neat job of writing out a problem on the online whiteboard, so I told him, “You did a good job of writing that out neatly and lining up the decimal points and the columns.” That’s it. I didn’t say anything about how he should write future math problems.

When he wrote out the next problem much less neatly than the last, I didn’t say anything.

Without me saying anything at all, he scratched out the messy version. And then he started over and wrote out a new, neat version, all my himself.

As a tutor, I am so excited that this style of feedback encouraged him to manage this on his own, without any cajoling or controlling from me — just an objective assessment of what he did well.

And I love having this clear guidance from Ashley Merryman’s archive on how to praise my students without worrying that I’m doing it the wrong way.

Related Posts:
Tips on Effective Praise from Ashley Merryman

What a Balinese dancing queen taught me about praise and encouragement

Praise and Intrinsic Motivation: An Answer?

Posts Tagged as "Ashley Merryman"

What Makes Kids Plow? (aka “Toning Down the Praise – Experiment #1”)

Monday, March 29th, 2010

This comment on GeekDad’s post about my homework help tips really warmed my heart:

“nothing is more satisfying then spending time with my children helping them with their math homework and witnessing the ‘light bulb’ moment when they get it and plow through the rest of the problems on the page” – Pabut

RIGHT ON!!! That moment is so satisfying and exciting. AND totally unpredictable. Creating the circumstances where “light bulb moments” happen totally varies from kid to kid and day to day. What can we do to maximize those light bulb moments and help kids plow?

I stumbled across a possible answer while approaching a different conundrum. All this new research on praise has been troubling me, and I’ve been questioning my praise strategies.

I used to eagerly cheer on students at the end of every problem, or even at the end of every step of the problem (“yes, exactly, that’s right, you got it, uh-huh…”). But what I’ve recently learned makes me wonder if frequent praise might actually be damaging my students instead of helping them.

So I tried an experiment. I recently worked with a rising fifth-grader. Since it was only our second meeting, he didn’t have months of meetings with me where I’d given him tons of praise. So I tried praising him very infrequently, just to see what happened.

I found that if I just stayed quiet, my student would happily plow through page after page of math problems, only stopping when he hit something really unfamiliar.

At first, I worried that if I didn’t indicate that something was correct, he wouldn’t know whether or not he had gotten the answer right. But I realized that if I only spoke up when he made a mistake or got off track, he would know he was right if I didn’t say anything.

This really surprised me. In the past, when I praised my students at almost every step, I believed that I was cheering them on. But I was really training them to expect feedback at almost every turn.

This particular student was so focused when I said nothing at all. So perhaps frequent praise would have hurt his concentration and kept him out of the “don’t stop me I’m doing math” zone.

The conclusion? I’m going to try to tone down the frequency with all my students and see how that goes.

Related Posts:
Power of Praise #1
Power of Praise #2
Tips for How to Help Your Kid with their Math Homework
GeekDad on Math Homework Mind Meld
Tips on Effective Praise from Ashley Merryman

Posts Tagged as "Ashley Merryman"

Tips on Effective Praise from Ashley Merryman

Friday, March 19th, 2010

After reading Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s thought-provoking article about the power and peril of praising kids, I was eager to know—how should I be praising the kids I tutor? I was totally pumped to find a series of excellent posts on her and Po’s blog which offer specific tips on how to praise kids.

Here’s a summary.

1. Don’t offer global statements. For example, if a kid makes a vase, instead of saying, “you’re such a talented artist!”, compliment the making of the vase.

2. Be sincere.

3. Don’t use empty praise. (Once you do, your credibility is gone.)

4. Scale back the amount of praise. “Instead of saying how great something is, just a pat-on-the-back and it’s over, start a conversation with the child about her work. ‘Look how you used the color red instead of green for the grass. Tell me about why you did that.’ ”

5. Be specific. Instead of, “you’re a great writer,” say something like, “I like the way you introduced his character in your story—it’s very clear that he’s who the story’s about.”

6. Praise the process. Example: “It was a good idea to finish reading the chapter before playing video games, instead of stopping in the middle.” “I noticed you paid attention to the coach through the whole game.” But don’t praise only effort—also praise strategies, decisions, and other aspects of the student’s approach.

7. Don’t connect praise with promises of future success. Don’t say, “…and I’m sure you’ll do well.” It’s too uncertain.

8. Don’t confuse praise with encouragement. “When a kid gets stuck, don’t say, “You’re smart; I know you can do this.” “Rather than the kid with an empty attempt at boosting his self-esteem, the better thing to have said is, ‘Honey, I know it seems hard, but we’ll work on it together. I think if you work hard, you can get this,’ or ‘Just do what you can, and if you’re stuck, we’ll figure out where you got lost,’ or even just, ‘You can do it.’”

9. Timing is everything. “Don’t interrupt a kid who’s working really hard to tell him, ‘You’re working really hard.’” Praising a kid can ruin their concentration and redirect their focus away from their task to worrying about what you think of them. “Hold your applause to the very end.”

10. Avoid praising in public.

11. Don’t praise to avoid giving criticism or addressing failure.

12. Don’t praise underserved success.

13. Know your praise audience. While “a younger child takes your praise at face value… by the time a kid’s a teenager, no praise at all—just straight unadorned feedback—may be more effective than actual words of praise.”

14. Avoid praise inflation.

15. The praise uber-tip: be honest.

Ashley’s original posts explain the reasoning behind each tip in glorious detail!

The Power of Praise (1)
The Power of Praise (2)
The Power of Praise (3)
On Stickers
When Learning Feels Like a Forced March

Posts Tagged as "Ashley Merryman"

Regain your Sleeping Powers!!

Sunday, February 7th, 2010

When I had to choose a “health problem” to do a presentation on in high school, I chose Sleep Deprivation as my topic. In middle school and high school, I struggled almost every night with falling asleep, and during the school year I would battle with my Mom about getting out of bed on time almost every morning.

But in college, I somehow stumbled on a midnight to 8 am sleep schedule that worked amazingly. I could fall asleep almost every night and frequently woke up right before my alarm. I was notorious for the regularity of my sleep schedule, which my friends called “Zook Time.”

But going to grad school really jacked up my sleep schedule. There were a few months in there were I really didn’t sleep more than 2-4 hours a night, and it wasn’t because I didn’t try! Now that I’ve finished grad school, I’m trying to regain my formerly excellent healthy sleeping powers.

I stumbled across this great article on tips for how to get kids to sleep more (or how to help yourself sleep more) by Ashley Merryman. What surprised me most of all in the article was learning that as many as 25% of people with ADHD have an underlying sleep disorder, and that addressing the sleep disorder would make their ADHD completely disappear.

I can attest that these tips work. I’ve been turning down the temperature in my apartment before going to bed. I’ve also been using low light before bedtime and not using the computer for two hours before bed. I started using the stove hood light in my kitchen instead of the overhead track lighting, a little table lamp in my living area instead of three big floor lamps, and my bedside lamp instead of my overhead light. I even put a little lamp in my bathroom so I can have low light when I brush my teeth before bed!

I know that many students struggle with sleep and wakefulness, so I’m excited to pass these tips on to everyone.

Related Posts:
Why Sleep Is Awesome
Meet Your Pineal Gland
Entrain Your Brain

Posts Tagged as "Ashley Merryman"

Praise and Intrinsic Motivation—An Answer?

Saturday, January 23rd, 2010

Yay!!! After reading Bronson & Merryman’s thought-provoking article on praise, I really wanted to know about the connection between praise and motivation. So I was excited to find a partial answer in a fascinating post on Bronson and Merryman’s blog (to find the post, scroll down and look for the title “How Not to Talk To Your Kids – Part 2”):

… University of Rochester’s Edward Deci and Richard Ryan…have argued that motivation can be divided into two types – intrinsic and extrinsic.

Intrinsic motivation is when you do something just because you love it – for the sheer joy and satisfaction of the experience. Extrinsic motivation is when you do something for a reward that comes from someone or something else than yourself.

And while we wouldn’t necessarily think of praise as an external reward, if brain chemistry’s any indication, it’s perceived as being closer to a tangible reward than we might initially consider. Praise then walks a fine-line, then with rewards and their positive and negative consequences on motivation. Research has shown that praise may increase adults’ intrinsic motivation, but only if the praise is infrequent and genuine. Praise that is controlling or too frequent seems to become an external reward. And the problem with that is that external rewards are so ephemeral, and inherently out of one’s control, that those motivated by external rewards become more competitive and more image-driven.

For children, there seems to be some consensus that tangible rewards are destructive for children’s intrinsic motivation. (All those read-a-book, get-a-pizza-party programs may be killing a generation’s love of reading for pleasure.) But the effects of praise on intrinsic motivation seem less clear.

So it seems that the key to make sure that praise doesn’t damage intrinsic motivation is to use it only infrequently and sincerely.

A personal reflection … I was the queen of Pizza Hut’s book-it reading program and it definitely didn’t kill my intrinsic motivation to read. Maybe the dopa/reward I got from reading was so much deeper and stronger than the dopa/reward I got from eating my personal pan pizza hut pizza (with sausage) that my dopa circuits remained strong and intact. ???? Or maybe I am just a weirdo.

Related Posts:
When Learning Feels Like a Forced March
The Power of Praise (1)
The Power of Praise (2)
The Power of Praise (3)
On Stickers

Posts Tagged as "Ashley Merryman"

The downside of always telling students to try harder (2)

Saturday, January 2nd, 2010

I recently posted about Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s recent report on the downside of always telling kids to try harder.

As someone who cried herself to sleep over her middle school math homework, I know that trying harder isn’t always the solution.

I believe the real solution is not to try harder, but to try again, differently: with a new tool, or with a different approach, or even just after taking a break to refresh your mind.

Perhaps the reason why some of the Chinese students discussed in the article (or students anywhere in the world) appear to have more of an “innate willingness to work hard” is just because they’ve learned how they learn most pleasurably and effortlessly. Maybe they’ve learned how to create flow states for themselves so they enjoy what they’re doing, instead of just grinding it out.

As a learner, I feel like the most useful thing I can do is examine how I learn best. And when I’m learning that way, it might not even feel like I’m working hard—it might actually feel effortless! From the outside, it might look like I’m a “hard worker,” but actually, I just don’t want to stop, because I’m in the zone.

As an educator, I feel like my own role is to help students learn how they learn best—so they can choose to learn what they want to learn, how they want to learn it, and do what they want to do, how they want to do it. Not just in school, but for the rest of their lives.

There’s always going to be some sort of gap between the way people teach us and the way we best learn. Our task is to find out how to create our own optimal conditions, no matter what we’re given.

Related Articles:
The Downside of Always Telling Students to Try Harder (1)
Power of Praise (1)
Algebra Tears

Posts Tagged as "Ashley Merryman"

The downside of always telling students to try harder (1)

Thursday, December 31st, 2009

Over on their Newsweek NurtureShock blog, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman recently posted an awesome article about the downside of always telling kids to work harder.

The article explores a conundrum. In the US, recent research on praise indicates that we should praise students for their process, not for any perceived “innate qualities.” “Process praise” (such as, “I love the colors you used in your painting, can you tell me how you picked them?”) is constructive, because you can control your process and effort. But praising someone’s innate qualities (“You’re such a great artist!”) is not helpful because you can’t control your innate qualities. And kids will do anything to hold on to a positive label—including no longer taking risks that might show the label to be untrue. (For example, only making paintings they think others will approve of, or that would support the “great artist” label.)

Here’s the kicker. In the US, we believe that the amount of effort we put in is something we can control. But in China, where the emphasis is already on effort (a variable that we in the US believe we can control), many Chinese students believe that their ability to try hard is a fixed trait beyond their control.

I thought that the crux of the article was that teachers in China don’t teach strategies. They just tell students to try harder, but they do not tell students how to apply effort more skillfully.

However, I don’t think that this problem is limited to the Chinese educational system—American educators do it too. (The Chinese schoolteacher’s instructions to “try harder” reminds me of Rafe Esquith’s observations that math teachers in the US frequently tell struggling students to “read it again” or “use their head,” even though he’s never seen any teacher get results with these instructions. Which is understandable—they’re not strategic instructions. So Chinese educators are not alone in having this problem.)

To take a step back, let’s consider the research that forms the background for this article’s discussion of education in China: the work of psychologist Carol Dweck. Her groundbreaking research into the effects of praise on children’s motivation is frequently summarized this way: you should praise students for effort because it’s something students can control.

But Carol Dweck isn’t just saying that we should praise kids for their effort—she’s saying that we should praise their process, and also help them explore their process.

Related articles:
When Persistence Isn’t Enough

Posts Tagged as "Ashley Merryman"

Why Sleep is Awesome

Wednesday, November 4th, 2009

Here’s a thought-provoking article about kids and sleep from one of my favorite writers, Po Bronson.

Compared to 30 years ago, most kids get about an hour less sleep per night. Shocking fact: losing just this one hour of sleep causes kids to function cognitively as if they are two years younger. Adults are affected too. After 2 weeks of getting only 6 hours of sleep per night, adults act “just as impaired as someone who has stayed awake for 24 hours straight.”

My favorite bitlet:

Sleep is a biological imperative for every species on Earth. But humans alone try to resist its pull. Instead, we see sleep not as a physical need but a statement of character. It’s considered a sign of weakness to admit fatigue, and it’s a sign of strength to refuse to succumb to slumber. Sleep is for wusses.

(Bronson and his collaborator, Ashley Merryman, also discuss this same research in their recent book NurtureShock, which I highly recommend–it’s totally amazing.)

Related links:
Why Sleep Is Awesome #2
Meet Your Pineal Gland
Entrain Your Brain
Regain Your Sleeping Powers