By David Streight
Well-intentioned praise of intelligence or skill might do more harm than good.
Most educators have now learned from Carol Dweck’s best-seller Mindset that kids who believe in a “growth mindset” (that smartness comes more from work than from innate ability) end up being more successful than those who believe in a “fixed mindset” (that we’re born with smarts or personalities, and they don’t change). We also know that kids with a growth mindset are more willing to take academic risks and to test their skills than kids with a fixed mindset, and that the way we praise our children, at home or at school, tends to help them develop one of these mindsets. <br><br>What we now understand even better than when Dweck wrote her best-seller is the effect that praise of “fixed traits” has, long term, on two concepts at the forefront of 21st century education’s discussions: resistance and grit.<br><br>Dweck wrote Mindset at a time when lots of other research was being done, both by her team and by colleagues. Their findings on praise are giving shape to an importantly different view of 21st century character development. What’s newest about praise is that how we do it matters, not just for kids' willingness to try new things, but to stick with them and to bounce back when bad things happen. <br><br>Person praise vs process praise:<br><br><img style=" "="">
Let’s look especially at praising the student as a person versus praising the process or strategy. Praising the person, the skills or ability, is reflected in statements like: “You are a math whiz,” or “I think you’re maybe the best student I’ve ever had.” Praising the process refers to comments like “I loved the way you stuck with it, even when it got hard,” or “You were successful because you tried a new strategy when the first one wasn’t working. Great job!”
What about resilience?
What happens is that students who get praised as if traits were fixed (person praise), start to buy into what the praise says. After all, praise feels good; why not believe it? However, when these people later hit a wall, when an important obstacle stands in their way, the more they have “bought into” person praise, the greater amount of helplessness they demonstrate. The obstacle(s) has shaken their self-image and self-confidence and derailed either their will or their ability to explore options to get around the wall. It has damaged their resilience. The person praise helped them shape the idea that they are good only when they succeed; thus, if they fail, they’re bad. That’s not what the person giving the praise meant, of course, but that is what the research has indicated.
What about grit?
That’s the resilience connection. Related to it is the grit component: persistence, determination, “stick-to-itiveness.” Dweck’s work with Melissa Kamins, where they also review studies done by a number of others, has shown that kids who begin to buy into the view that their worth as a person is dependent on their success or failure in isolated incidents are harsher in their judgments of themselves, less happy generally, and less able to persist after setbacks than kids who don’t judge their general worth based on a single performance.
Click here to see the results of Kamins and Dweck's studies.