The best way to help motivate students to learn and also have a lasting positive effect is something that I wonder about, more or less consciously, all the time. That’s why I’ve been so interested in the research of Carol Dweck since I first read Po Bronson’s article about it in New York nine months ago. This month, there’s an article by Dweck herself in Scientific American Mind. Now I realize that this publication is something like People in terms of relative sophistication for the subject matter it treats, but no one leaves copies of peer-reviewed psychology journals laying around my house. So we work with what we’ve got, and in this case it’s just fine.
Her research is based on a distinction between praise for being smart, and praise for working hard. Where the former produces or reinforces a belief that intelligence is innate and that success or high performance is based on that inborn quality, the latter encourages a view that anyone can work hard and achieve. Our current understanding of neurobiology supports this second stance. Furthermore, your “gifted” students who believe that they are smart may avoid real challenges for fear of losing or disproving the thing that makes them special. So we’re not just talking about telling strugglers to make another go of it and give it the old college try. This is a better way for everyone to think about how learning works. This isn’t a self-esteem superstition, it’s solid science. Let’s tell kids the truth: your brain, like a muscle, works better when you exercise it regularly by straining just beyond what you’re capable of doing without help.
Reading Dr. Dweck’s CV, I saw that she has a book, Mindset, which I have now one-clicked. Can’t believe I didn’t figure this out sooner. Review to follow. In the meantime, keep telling kids they’re doing a good job because of their hard work. It’s difficult not to want to affirm or praise a student’s intelligence when they do well, but remember that you’ll be doing them a better service by praising their success through effort instead. Redirect your praise to support the kind of attitude about learning that will serve them well now and in the future.