Striving is Important

Source: Washington Post, Jan 2012

A growing body of research over three decades shows that easy, unearned praise does not help students but instead interferes with significant learning opportunities.  As schools ratchet up academic standards for all students, new buzzwords are “persistence,” “risk-taking” and “resilience” — each implying more sweat and strain than fuzzy, warm feelings.

“We used to think we could hand children self-esteem on a platter,” Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck said. “That has backfired.”

Dweck’s studies, embraced in Montgomery schools and elsewhere, have found that praising children for intelligence — “You’re so clever!” — also backfires. In study after study, children rewarded for being smart become more likely to shy away from hard assignments that might tarnish their star reputations.

But children praised for trying hard or taking risks tend to enjoy challenges and find greater success. Children also perform better in the long term when they believe that their intellect is not a birthright but something that grows and develops as they learn new things.

Brain imaging shows how this is true, how connections between nerve cells in the cortex multiply and grow stronger as people learn and practice new skills. This bit of science has proved to be motivating to struggling students because it gives them a sense of control over their success.

Dweck said it is important to be clear with children about what proficient or gold-medal performance looks like so they know what to strive for. (Unhelpful: “You were robbed! Those judges must be blind!”)

But she stresses the importance of using praise to encourage risk-taking and learning from failure in the classroom, experiences that make way for invention, creativity and resilience.

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