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.
When Persistence Isn’t Enough