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Power of Praise (1)

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

Po Bronson’s awesome New York Magazine article, The Power (and Peril) of Praising Your Kids, reports on psychologist Carol Dweck, who has been researching the effect of praise on students for ten years. In a series of experiments with 400 fifth-graders, research assistants gave students a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of puzzles.

When the students finished, they were given their score and a single line of praise: either “you must be smart at this,” or “you must have tried really hard.” In the second round of tests, students could either pick an easy test like the first one, or a harder test. Ninety percent of those praised for their effort picked the harder one. The majority of students praised for their intelligence picked the easier one.

Here’s where it gets really crazy. In a third round, all students were given a very difficult test designed for students a grade ahead of them. Everyone failed. The students who were praised for their innate intelligence were “sweating and miserable” and assumed that because they couldn’t figure out the puzzles, they weren’t smart after all. The students who were praised for their effort just tried harder, and “many of them remarked, unprovoked, ‘This is my favorite test.’”

Dweck had suspected that praise could backfire, but even she was surprised by the magnitude of the effect. “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control,” she explains. “They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.”

I feel like I’m already extremely sensitive to every word I say to my students. I would never say anything to imply that they weren’t capable of doing something. In my experience, students respond extremely well to the praise and encouragement that I give them, and I believe it helps them feel more confident and relaxed about the learning process. A lot of my praise is pretty general: “Awesome!” “You got it!” “Good work!” “Great!”, right after they do something correctly or finish a problem. But I wouldn’t be surprised if a few “You’re so smart!”s or “You’re good at this!”s slipped in there.

Would that be so bad? By the time my students have come to me, they’ve probably gotten a lot of negative feedback on their math abilities, be it objective or subjective. And they probably have a lot of negative self-talk. If someone’s convinced that they’re “bad at math,” is it really wrong to indicate that they have natural ability at some point?

However, reading about this research is causing me to examine my entire attitude toward praise. Remembering one particular incident really makes me cringe. I had a student who had told me in the past that he loved Latin. He was struggling in school, and I wanted to encourage him. I remembered that in Boston, in addition to the high demand for math tutors, there was also a really high demand for Latin tutors, since a lot of middle and high schools require Latin.

I mentioned this to him in the context of, “You’re good at Latin, maybe you’d enjoy tutoring people in it, and you could make a ton of money,” and he responded, “I never said that I was good at Latin. I said that I liked Latin.” I felt like the worst tutor in the universe. I thought I was encouraging him, but actually, I was praising an “innate capability” he himself didn’t believe he possessed. I wish I could take back what I had said.

Followup: This same research on praise is discussed in Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman‘s amazing new book, NurtureShock, which I recommend you read in its entirety!

Related Posts:
Power of Praise (2)
Power of Praise (3)
Praise and Intrinsic Motivation–An Answer?

Tagged In: Topics: praise

6 Comments on “Power of Praise (1)”

  • Liz on October 28th 1:24 pm

    So many people out there believe that they are just bad at math; I agree that for them to hear, once in a while, that they have innate ability could be a very good thing.

    On the other hand, maybe students would have more self-confidence if they discovered that through effort, they could succeed? This is a very thought-provoking post.

  • admin on October 28th 1:31 pm

    Thanks so much for your comment!

  • Nan Kemberling on November 11th 10:38 am

    i have been experimenting with this in my studio since we discussed it this summer. i have been checking everything i say to my students–well, sometimes i still find myself slipping momentarily into the “you have such talent” speech–but mostly i am sticking with the work-oriented praise. and it makes such a difference. immediately. i see it in how they react. smiles. straighter backs. i get the sense that the students are such much more empowered this way and are less focused on being “perfect.” of course, these things take time. but i am working diligently with this new approach and spreading the word to anyone who seems remotely interested. thank you, rebecca. this concept has changed my life!

  • Rebecca Zook on November 11th 2:00 pm

    Wow, this is awesome!! It really helped me to talk about this with you over the summer too, and I am so happy to hear that “process-focus praise” is helping you with your own students as well!!!! I love hearing about the specific responses. Thank you, Nan!!

  • Yonemoto on February 19th 5:26 pm

    wow. This has changed everything. I’ve been helping some friends (adults) who have been so destroyed by behavioral inhibition that they really can’t get stuff done… And I’ve been telling them things like, “they are smart, creative”… So. Wow. At some point you have to rebuild confidence, though, so how do you do that?

    I think there’s also an unintended consequence of overemphasizing effort – in the real world, there’s a strong influence of luck, building networks, innate intelligence (or at least intelligence that had been built up by that point by effort and innate ability), reprioritization, shifting directions, oh yeah and did I mention luck?

    I’ve seen so many friends burn out because they thought that putting effort in was the only thing they could do and they kept meeting failure.

  • Rebecca Zook on February 19th 6:22 pm

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

    I think part of what Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman were saying, which maybe doesn’t come across in my post, is that kids and adults respond to praise differently. There’s some evidence that praise can increase adults’ intrinsic motivation.

    If you’re looking for more on this topic, I highly recommend Carol Dweck’s book Mindset. It’s totally delightful to read, and really explains the difference between the “fixed” and “growth” mindsets, and gives great examples of how to provide “process praise” (praising effort) vs “person praise” (praising fixed traits beyond a person’s control).

    Basically, the down side of telling people they are “smart” and “creative” is that they can become afraid of taking any risk (including the risk of showing effort) that might show that they aren’t “smart” and “creative.” But if you praise people’s effort, like saying, “that was a creative solution you offered at the meeting,” or “your combination of vegetables in the salad is creative,” is then they can ask themselves, “what other solutions could I come up with in the future?” or “what other vegetable combinations could I try in my salad?” or whatnot. Process praise can direct people to replicate that effort, and the effort is something they can control.

    *But* I also totally know what you mean about there being an unintended consequence of overemphasizing effort! I wrote about that in a couple earlier blog posts:
    The Downside of Always Telling Students to Try Harder (1)
    The Downside of Always Telling Students to Try Harder (2)

    I look forward to continuing this conversation!

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