I’m excited and grateful about the positive response to Required Reading I. Therefore I’m a tiny bit trepidatious about my followup since it’s probably going to be a little more controversial. Be that as it may, I think it’s really, vitally important, so here goes:

Praise for Intelligence

Carol Dweck is a developmental psychologist who has made a career of studying how people’s beliefs about their traits influence their performance. She’s written a lot of good stuff but I want to call your attention to this article published in American Educator in 1999. The article summarizes research conducted by Dweck and others, most critically a study she and Claudia Mueller published in 1998 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75 33-52 entitled “Intelligence praise can undermine motivation and performance.” I could not find the full text of the study online but the American Educator article summarizes the methodology and results.

Take-home lesson: Praise kids for what they have control over. Do not praise them for what they do not have control over. In particular, do not communicate to them that they’re smart, gifted, talented, intelligent, or the like, when they do something easily.

Telling kids they’re smart or gifted when they do something easily communicates to them that people will stop thinking they’re smart if they ever break a sweat. They become fundamentally afraid of struggle. This inhibits them from growing.

In the research Dweck presents, she and her colleagues took fifth graders and divided them into three experimental groups. All the students were given a set of puzzles that was designed to be “challenging but easy enough for all of them to do quite well.” Afterward, children in the three groups were told the following things:
Group 1: “Wow, you got x number correct. That’s a really good score. You must be smart at this.”
Group 2: “Wow, you got x number correct. That’s a really good score. You must have worked hard.”
Group 3: “Wow, you got x number correct. That’s a really good score.”

Afterward, the students were asked questions: how did they like the task? Would they like to take the problems home to practice? How smart did they feel? The three groups responded similarly to each other.

Next, all three groups were given a harder set of problems, on which they didn’t do as well. Then they were asked again how they liked it, would they like to take home the problems, and how smart did they feel? Lo and behold, the students who had been told “you must be smart at this” now did not feel smart at all, did not enjoy the task, and did not want to take the problems home. The students who had been told “you must have worked hard,” in contrast, enjoyed the task as much or more than the easier one. The third group had results between the other two.

Finally, the three groups were given a third set of problems similar in difficulty to the original set. The “you must be smart” group did the worst, and significantly worse than they had done on the original set. The “you must have worked hard” group did the best, and significantly better than they had done on the original set.

I think these results speak for themselves. If you think you are smart because you succeed with ease, you have a devastating and totally unavoidable conclusion to draw the minute you do not succeed with ease: you are not actually smart. There is nothing left to do but to desperately hide your struggle and hope no one finds you out. This is rough on your performance as well as your psyche. Meanwhile, if you find that your effort, your diligence, better yet your perseverance in the face of setbacks are what get the teacher excited about you, then a real challenge (meaning something you’re doubtful you can do) is actually an opportunity to enact your value. Dweck and Mueller also did some more experiments, fleshing out these details, that I won’t go into – the American Educator article (linked to above) is worth your read. But I have one thing to add. (Actually I have an unbelievably huge amount to add, but I had to limit it somehow.)

I take this research result to have very strong implications about how we should talk with kids about their performance. However, I take it to have no implications at all about what kinds of work they should be doing. For example, I think it challenges us to be very careful around the idea of “giftedness.” I would not mind if the whole idea of “mathematical giftedness” was given a rest for a good long while. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think children who love math shouldn’t get the opportunity to explore this love.

For example, if you are the parent or teacher of a kid who loves math and is breezing through her schoolwork, please please please give her opportunities to study mathematics that she finds exciting and challenging. But don’t tell her this is because she’s “gifted.” That puts her in Dweck’s experimental group 1 (“you must be smart at this”) and so sets her up to become freaked out and alienated from mathematics when the going gets rough. Tell her it’s because she’s excited by it. Praise her not when she flies through something easily but when she sticks with a problem past the point where she was ready to give up. Highlight her own sense of accomplishment when she does something that was really hard for her – “I was so proud when you did that because your patience paid off. I bet you’re proud too, huh?” Acknowledge resourcefulness – “I like how you looked for a new way to see it when your old way wasn’t working.” And show her that you value her enjoyment of the experience of doing math. When she first sees a pattern, she will be excited about it. When she figures out how to solve a new kind of problem, she will feel powerful. When she first sees a connection between disparate-looking objects, she will be in awe. These are the experiences that motivate a lifelong relationship to mathematics, so when she has them, let her know you value that. “Tell me what it was like when you saw that pattern.” If her enjoyment of math is bound up with being “gifted” it is fragile; so train her to enjoy math for its own sake.