Yikes. All this time I thought I had it right.
Po Bronson has a great piece in New York Magazine, How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise. In it, he reports on the research of Carol Dweck and others, all pointing to the need to use specific praise. While parents and teachers might think it’s a good thing to say, “Good job,” or “You’re so smart,” these empty phrases actually turn out to be de-motivating. Instead, we should be praising specific behaviors. For example, you might say something like, “I can tell you really worked hard on that.” Believe me, as a parent, it’s tough to check yourself when you want to say “good job” and force yourself to find something to praise.
Recently my 7-year old daughter completed what must have been a difficult level of SuperTux. I saw her peeking out the window as I pulled into the driveway, and she ran to meet me in the garage, jumping up and down, to tell me the news. I said, “You see, all that hard work paid off!” I wanted to praise her not for being a good video game player, but for sticking to it long enough to accomplish what she did. That’s very different from saying, “you’re so talented.”
My 4-year old daughter is pretty good at coloring. When she’s coloring, I’ll comment on how impressed I am that she is really taking her time, trying to do a good job. Again, I’m not praising her talent, I’m praising the effort.
There are some great examples of the effects of praise in the article. For example, 90% of students who were praised for their effort after taking a test picked a more challenging set of puzzles when given the choice; only 10% of students praised for intelligence chose the challenging set. After a difficult test (no choice), and a subsequent test of equal difficulty to the first, students praised for effort performed better than on the original test, while those praised for intelligence did worse. It really is fascinating, read the article if you haven’t already.
My question is: is this age-specific? Do adults come to our classes with these notions about being smart? Could we apply a simple treatment to our students, dropping hints about how intelligence can be developed? What kind of impact would that have? And, is it the job of developmental ed or study-skills classes, or is it something we all should do?