Thursday, 4 June 2009

The Proven Negative Effects of Praising "Intelligence"

Yesterday's website was about rewards for students. My friend, Grainne, astutely raised how careful teachers should be in rewarding intelligence rather than effort. Don't worry, this isn't going to become some hippy love-in where I start pronouncing that we "are all special" and creating daily hug schedules for students. No, the negative effects of praising intelligence is based on hard science and cold logic.

Carol Dweck's important research looked at students who, having succesfully completed a task, were rewarded differently. One group were praised for their intelligence ("Wow. You got a high score. You must be smart at this."). One group were praised for effort ("You must have worked really hard). And a final group were praised for their performance only ("You did a good job").

Here's the scary bit... Dweck then asked students to choose a task to do next. They had two choices. One task was challenging but students would learn a lot (regardless of whether they succeeded); the other task was easier with sure success but, crucially, less learning. 90% of children praised for effort went for the challenging task, whereas the majority of children praised for intelligence took the easy option. This scientific experiment concluded that praising intelligence rather than effort limited student's willingness to challenge themselves in the future. Instead, students became used to taking an 'easier option

Of course, science is not the real world. This is a fairly contrived test. But logic would suggest the same thing. Praise for intelligence praises what you are meaning students start to believe their success is outside of their control - it was down to an innate ability or, perhaps, a fluke. Praising students for what they do enables students to feel positive about taking on challenges and focuses their mind on process rather than outcomes.

As Dweck says:
These findings suggest that when we praise children for
their intelligence,we are telling them that this is the name
of the game: Look smart ; d o n ’t risk making mistake s . O n
the other hand,when we praise children for the effort and
hard work that leads to achievement, they want to keep
engaging in that process.They are not diverted from the
task of learning by a concern with how smart they
might—or might not—look.

Since learning about Dweck's work I try -- really hard -- to praise only for effort and performance rather than any innate ability. There are still times when I say to students "Wow. You're a really talented dancer" or "gosh, you have a real skill at listening to others". The look on their face when I spot this and they realise they are good at something is worth it, and I wouldn't want anyone to stop noticing their students' strengths. BUT we must make sure that we make an equally big song and dance out of effort otherwise we will end up with students who are terrified of failure.