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Posts Tagged as "Po Bronson"

“This is really neat”

Thursday, August 19th, 2010

Given the counterintuitive new research that has found that certain kinds of praise can undermine student motivation and achievement, I’ve been working over the past year to refine how I praise my students.

Here’s some very specific advice from NurtureShock co-author Ashley Merryman’s blog archive (to read the original, keep scrolling, scrolling, scrolling until you get to the post titled “How not to talk to your kids – Part 4”):

A common praise technique that people use (I know I did it with my tutoring kids… up til a few weeks ago, that is….) is to use a present success to control future performance. For example, if a typically-sloppy child writes an essay that’s atypically legible, a parent or teacher may say, “That’s very neat: you should write all of your papers like this.”

Even if it’s meant as sincere praise and encouragement, the research shows that’s not only an ineffective way to praise. In fact, like praising for intelligence – it can actually damage a child’s performance.

Here’s what is going on. While the first part of the sentence was positive, rather than focusing on that success, the latter part of the sentence (“You should write all like this”) was negative, doubly-so.

First, rather than simply focusing on the present achievement, the second half of the sentence reminds the child about all the past mistakes. Second, it’s an expression of pressure to continue at this level in the future. But the kid may think that the work he just completed was very difficult, and he doubts he can live up to these new expectations.

Even worse, a child who suddenly wrote more legibly did it on his own volition. But if the praiser qualifies the praise with the expectation of future performance, now if the child continues to perform, he’s not doing it because he wanted to: he’s doing it to fulfill the praiser’s expectation.

Basically, the whole exchange kills the kid’s intrinsic motivation to improve. Furthermore, studies have shown that children’s performance actually may go down: they will even intentionally underperform, just to show that they refuse to follow the attempted control. In other words, yes, they do badly just to spite you.

The better thing to have said was, “This is really neat,” and left it at that.

I have been waiting for a year for a chance to try this out with one of my own students. I finally had a chance to implement this a few days ago while tutoring a rising fifth grader online.

He did a particularly neat job of writing out a problem on the online whiteboard, so I told him, “You did a good job of writing that out neatly and lining up the decimal points and the columns.” That’s it. I didn’t say anything about how he should write future math problems.

When he wrote out the next problem much less neatly than the last, I didn’t say anything.

Without me saying anything at all, he scratched out the messy version. And then he started over and wrote out a new, neat version, all my himself.

As a tutor, I am so excited that this style of feedback encouraged him to manage this on his own, without any cajoling or controlling from me — just an objective assessment of what he did well.

And I love having this clear guidance from Ashley Merryman’s archive on how to praise my students without worrying that I’m doing it the wrong way.

Related Posts:
Tips on Effective Praise from Ashley Merryman

What a Balinese dancing queen taught me about praise and encouragement

Praise and Intrinsic Motivation: An Answer?

Posts Tagged as "Po Bronson"

What Makes Kids Plow? (aka “Toning Down the Praise – Experiment #1”)

Monday, March 29th, 2010

This comment on GeekDad’s post about my homework help tips really warmed my heart:

“nothing is more satisfying then spending time with my children helping them with their math homework and witnessing the ‘light bulb’ moment when they get it and plow through the rest of the problems on the page” – Pabut

RIGHT ON!!! That moment is so satisfying and exciting. AND totally unpredictable. Creating the circumstances where “light bulb moments” happen totally varies from kid to kid and day to day. What can we do to maximize those light bulb moments and help kids plow?

I stumbled across a possible answer while approaching a different conundrum. All this new research on praise has been troubling me, and I’ve been questioning my praise strategies.

I used to eagerly cheer on students at the end of every problem, or even at the end of every step of the problem (“yes, exactly, that’s right, you got it, uh-huh…”). But what I’ve recently learned makes me wonder if frequent praise might actually be damaging my students instead of helping them.

So I tried an experiment. I recently worked with a rising fifth-grader. Since it was only our second meeting, he didn’t have months of meetings with me where I’d given him tons of praise. So I tried praising him very infrequently, just to see what happened.

I found that if I just stayed quiet, my student would happily plow through page after page of math problems, only stopping when he hit something really unfamiliar.

At first, I worried that if I didn’t indicate that something was correct, he wouldn’t know whether or not he had gotten the answer right. But I realized that if I only spoke up when he made a mistake or got off track, he would know he was right if I didn’t say anything.

This really surprised me. In the past, when I praised my students at almost every step, I believed that I was cheering them on. But I was really training them to expect feedback at almost every turn.

This particular student was so focused when I said nothing at all. So perhaps frequent praise would have hurt his concentration and kept him out of the “don’t stop me I’m doing math” zone.

The conclusion? I’m going to try to tone down the frequency with all my students and see how that goes.

Related Posts:
Power of Praise #1
Power of Praise #2
Tips for How to Help Your Kid with their Math Homework
GeekDad on Math Homework Mind Meld
Tips on Effective Praise from Ashley Merryman

Posts Tagged as "Po Bronson"

Tips on Effective Praise from Ashley Merryman

Friday, March 19th, 2010

After reading Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s thought-provoking article about the power and peril of praising kids, I was eager to know—how should I be praising the kids I tutor? I was totally pumped to find a series of excellent posts on her and Po’s blog which offer specific tips on how to praise kids.

Here’s a summary.

1. Don’t offer global statements. For example, if a kid makes a vase, instead of saying, “you’re such a talented artist!”, compliment the making of the vase.

2. Be sincere.

3. Don’t use empty praise. (Once you do, your credibility is gone.)

4. Scale back the amount of praise. “Instead of saying how great something is, just a pat-on-the-back and it’s over, start a conversation with the child about her work. ‘Look how you used the color red instead of green for the grass. Tell me about why you did that.’ ”

5. Be specific. Instead of, “you’re a great writer,” say something like, “I like the way you introduced his character in your story—it’s very clear that he’s who the story’s about.”

6. Praise the process. Example: “It was a good idea to finish reading the chapter before playing video games, instead of stopping in the middle.” “I noticed you paid attention to the coach through the whole game.” But don’t praise only effort—also praise strategies, decisions, and other aspects of the student’s approach.

7. Don’t connect praise with promises of future success. Don’t say, “…and I’m sure you’ll do well.” It’s too uncertain.

8. Don’t confuse praise with encouragement. “When a kid gets stuck, don’t say, “You’re smart; I know you can do this.” “Rather than the kid with an empty attempt at boosting his self-esteem, the better thing to have said is, ‘Honey, I know it seems hard, but we’ll work on it together. I think if you work hard, you can get this,’ or ‘Just do what you can, and if you’re stuck, we’ll figure out where you got lost,’ or even just, ‘You can do it.’”

9. Timing is everything. “Don’t interrupt a kid who’s working really hard to tell him, ‘You’re working really hard.’” Praising a kid can ruin their concentration and redirect their focus away from their task to worrying about what you think of them. “Hold your applause to the very end.”

10. Avoid praising in public.

11. Don’t praise to avoid giving criticism or addressing failure.

12. Don’t praise underserved success.

13. Know your praise audience. While “a younger child takes your praise at face value… by the time a kid’s a teenager, no praise at all—just straight unadorned feedback—may be more effective than actual words of praise.”

14. Avoid praise inflation.

15. The praise uber-tip: be honest.

Ashley’s original posts explain the reasoning behind each tip in glorious detail!

The Power of Praise (1)
The Power of Praise (2)
The Power of Praise (3)
On Stickers
When Learning Feels Like a Forced March

Posts Tagged as "Po Bronson"

Be Yourself, Do What You Love, Wear What You Want (Ada Lovelace/Coder Barbie/Mashable Follow-Up)

Tuesday, March 9th, 2010

Today, I’m guest posting on Mashable about why computer engineer Barbie is good for women in tech. I’m really proud of my article, so feel free to click over and read it in its entirety!

To summarize, critics have attacked the new computer engineer Barbie as being unrealistically feminine. But did you know that the very first computer programmer was a lady? Who wore frilly dresses and elaborate girly hairdos? Aw, yeah… ADA LOVELACE!!

Coder Barbie and Ada Lovelace, the world's first computer programmer - which one is more "realistic"?

While my article focuses on the controversy surrounding computer engineer Barbie, I want to clarify my main point: everyone (male or female) should feel that they can be themselves while doing math, science, engineering, and technology.

Being Yourself
Many times, when I’m working with my math tutoring students, they’ll spontaneously create an awesome new problem solving technique. A student will stand up and map out an angle with their body by turning a certain number of degrees. Or bust out with new lyrics to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” in order to remember how even numbers work.

I know that the only reason my students feel free to do these things is because they feel totally comfortable. And they wouldn’t learn as much, or be able to solve problems as well, if they didn’t feel like they could do these things.

When you feel like you can be yourself, it’s easier to ask questions, challenge convention, and come up with intuitive new solutions. Most of all, when you’re comfortable being yourself, you can access everything within you, and you have much greater resources to solve all kinds of problems. If you feel like you have to act a certain way, or need to leave pieces of yourself at the door (maybe the parts that love pink), bits of yourself that could help you solve problems get left behind.

(Not only does this apply to individuals, it also applies to teams working to create products. Pamela Fox points out that one of the signs of a wise crowd is diversity of opinion—when everyone can speak up, even if they’re not in agreement with the majority. Having different kinds of people in computer engineering—or math, or science—makes for stronger products.)

I’m not saying that women must be fashionistas or wear pink or be “feminine,” but that no one should have to choose between being themselves and doing what they love.

Workplace Reality
Female readers with tech careers commented on the pressures women face in male-dominated tech workplaces. Tweeter nostruminc remarked, “Now what the heck is wrong with a pink laptop? NOTHING. But it is intimidating being the only woman in a workplace.”

A friend of mine–an electronic engineer who now engineers solar technology–elaborated: For her, the problem is old-school male-engineer-dominated workplaces combined with American workaholism.

She’s found that when she’s been able to work with more women and the new breed of male engineers who grew up with female engineering classmates, the teams are more fun and more productive. The difference really just lies in the culture of the workplace and how women engineers are treated by their male coworkers.

Also, some commenters basically suggested that Barbie, in any form, just perpetuates gender stereotypes: “Boys have Legos, Playmobiles, toy soldiers, trains, workbenches, and astronauts. Girls have princesses, kitchens, sparkly cell phones and baby dolls to push around and practice raising.” But Barbie actually broke the mold. She was one of the first dolls who, as a single career girl, didn’t have to take care of anybody else—or be taken care of.

Additionally, I’m going to speak from personal experience. When I was growing up, my parents didn’t want me to internalize any stereotypes, so they gave me both toy trucks and dolls to play with. But I just wanted to play with dolls. When they gave me both pants and dresses, I only wanted to wear dresses.

Instead of trying to push me to play with trucks and wear pants, they just encouraged me, my whole life, to be myself and follow my passions, however they evolved.

Passion Turbocharges Your Brain
And there’s a neurological basis for my parents’ approach. Po Bronson points out that letting kids follow their passions actually “turbocharges” their brains.

Regardless of our potential moralistic objections to Barbie (or Pokémon), when kids are doing something they love—no matter what it is or whether it has ostensible “educational value”—their brains get spritzed with dopamine, which “depolarizes neurons and improves their firing rate; their response to optimal stimuli becomes sharper, and the background buzz of relevant stimuli is quieted a little.”

Over time, the repetition involved in pursuing your passions assists the myelination process, which increases neural speed “100 fold.” And that’s why Po Bronson is encouraging his 5-year-old daughter’s passion for princesses and Supergirl.

For a great explanation of how passion can change kids’ brains, check out Po Bronson‘s Daily Beast Article about how dumb toys can make kids smarter–in particular, Pokemon. (However, as I learned after corresponding with him after writing this blog post, Pokemon and Computer Engineer Barbie are not parallels, because Barbie does not have something like Pokemon’s extensive taxonomy and math calculation.)

All kinds of Computer Engineers
To those “nay-sayers” who see Barbie as a “devil-doll,” Alison Lewis commented, “Just get the girl coding and making…use it to start a discussion about technology, sit a girl down and do a fun little program, make something with electronics, or talk about other women in tech and how wonderful they are.” Lewis also adds that you can always modify Barbie’s outfit and hair if you don’t like them.

As Pamela Fox points out, “it’s not like I want the next generation of CS [Computer Science] geeks to all wear pink. I just want to get rid of the idea that CS geeks have to like anything in particular—except programming, of course. Ideally, there would be computer programmer Barbies in all flavors—punk goth, prep, jock, nun—and all races and genders.”

Because what does a “real” computer engineer look like? Like whatever you want to wear.

Related Posts:
My Favorite Math Teacher Is a Woman
Tips for How to Help Your Kids with their Math Homework
On being yourself while doing math
On Optimal Challenge
Praise and Intrinsic Motivation–An Answer?

Posts Tagged as "Po Bronson"

Praise and Intrinsic Motivation—An Answer?

Saturday, January 23rd, 2010

Yay!!! After reading Bronson & Merryman’s thought-provoking article on praise, I really wanted to know about the connection between praise and motivation. So I was excited to find a partial answer in a fascinating post on Bronson and Merryman’s blog (to find the post, scroll down and look for the title “How Not to Talk To Your Kids – Part 2”):

… University of Rochester’s Edward Deci and Richard Ryan…have argued that motivation can be divided into two types – intrinsic and extrinsic.

Intrinsic motivation is when you do something just because you love it – for the sheer joy and satisfaction of the experience. Extrinsic motivation is when you do something for a reward that comes from someone or something else than yourself.

And while we wouldn’t necessarily think of praise as an external reward, if brain chemistry’s any indication, it’s perceived as being closer to a tangible reward than we might initially consider. Praise then walks a fine-line, then with rewards and their positive and negative consequences on motivation. Research has shown that praise may increase adults’ intrinsic motivation, but only if the praise is infrequent and genuine. Praise that is controlling or too frequent seems to become an external reward. And the problem with that is that external rewards are so ephemeral, and inherently out of one’s control, that those motivated by external rewards become more competitive and more image-driven.

For children, there seems to be some consensus that tangible rewards are destructive for children’s intrinsic motivation. (All those read-a-book, get-a-pizza-party programs may be killing a generation’s love of reading for pleasure.) But the effects of praise on intrinsic motivation seem less clear.

So it seems that the key to make sure that praise doesn’t damage intrinsic motivation is to use it only infrequently and sincerely.

A personal reflection … I was the queen of Pizza Hut’s book-it reading program and it definitely didn’t kill my intrinsic motivation to read. Maybe the dopa/reward I got from reading was so much deeper and stronger than the dopa/reward I got from eating my personal pan pizza hut pizza (with sausage) that my dopa circuits remained strong and intact. ???? Or maybe I am just a weirdo.

Related Posts:
When Learning Feels Like a Forced March
The Power of Praise (1)
The Power of Praise (2)
The Power of Praise (3)
On Stickers

Posts Tagged as "Po Bronson"

The downside of always telling students to try harder (2)

Saturday, January 2nd, 2010

I recently posted about Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s recent report on the downside of always telling kids to try harder.

As someone who cried herself to sleep over her middle school math homework, I know that trying harder isn’t always the solution.

I believe the real solution is not to try harder, but to try again, differently: with a new tool, or with a different approach, or even just after taking a break to refresh your mind.

Perhaps the reason why some of the Chinese students discussed in the article (or students anywhere in the world) appear to have more of an “innate willingness to work hard” is just because they’ve learned how they learn most pleasurably and effortlessly. Maybe they’ve learned how to create flow states for themselves so they enjoy what they’re doing, instead of just grinding it out.

As a learner, I feel like the most useful thing I can do is examine how I learn best. And when I’m learning that way, it might not even feel like I’m working hard—it might actually feel effortless! From the outside, it might look like I’m a “hard worker,” but actually, I just don’t want to stop, because I’m in the zone.

As an educator, I feel like my own role is to help students learn how they learn best—so they can choose to learn what they want to learn, how they want to learn it, and do what they want to do, how they want to do it. Not just in school, but for the rest of their lives.

There’s always going to be some sort of gap between the way people teach us and the way we best learn. Our task is to find out how to create our own optimal conditions, no matter what we’re given.

Related Articles:
The Downside of Always Telling Students to Try Harder (1)
Power of Praise (1)
Algebra Tears

Posts Tagged as "Po Bronson"

The downside of always telling students to try harder (1)

Thursday, December 31st, 2009

Over on their Newsweek NurtureShock blog, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman recently posted an awesome article about the downside of always telling kids to work harder.

The article explores a conundrum. In the US, recent research on praise indicates that we should praise students for their process, not for any perceived “innate qualities.” “Process praise” (such as, “I love the colors you used in your painting, can you tell me how you picked them?”) is constructive, because you can control your process and effort. But praising someone’s innate qualities (“You’re such a great artist!”) is not helpful because you can’t control your innate qualities. And kids will do anything to hold on to a positive label—including no longer taking risks that might show the label to be untrue. (For example, only making paintings they think others will approve of, or that would support the “great artist” label.)

Here’s the kicker. In the US, we believe that the amount of effort we put in is something we can control. But in China, where the emphasis is already on effort (a variable that we in the US believe we can control), many Chinese students believe that their ability to try hard is a fixed trait beyond their control.

I thought that the crux of the article was that teachers in China don’t teach strategies. They just tell students to try harder, but they do not tell students how to apply effort more skillfully.

However, I don’t think that this problem is limited to the Chinese educational system—American educators do it too. (The Chinese schoolteacher’s instructions to “try harder” reminds me of Rafe Esquith’s observations that math teachers in the US frequently tell struggling students to “read it again” or “use their head,” even though he’s never seen any teacher get results with these instructions. Which is understandable—they’re not strategic instructions. So Chinese educators are not alone in having this problem.)

To take a step back, let’s consider the research that forms the background for this article’s discussion of education in China: the work of psychologist Carol Dweck. Her groundbreaking research into the effects of praise on children’s motivation is frequently summarized this way: you should praise students for effort because it’s something students can control.

But Carol Dweck isn’t just saying that we should praise kids for their effort—she’s saying that we should praise their process, and also help them explore their process.

Related articles:
When Persistence Isn’t Enough

Posts Tagged as "Po Bronson"

Power of Praise (3)

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

And one last awesome bitlet from Po Bronson’s praise article. Persistence is not only an act of will, but also “an unconscious response, governed by a circuit in the brain.” Dr. Robert Cloninger at Washington University in St. Louis actually found this brain circuit.

…[This circuit] monitors the reward center of the brain, and like a switch, it intervenes when there’s a lack of immediate reward. When it switches on, it’s telling the rest of the brain, “Don’t stop trying. There’s dopa [the brain’s chemical reward for success] on the horizon.”

…What makes some people wired to have an active circuit?…

“The key is intermittent reinforcement,” says Cloninger. The brain has to learn that frustrating spells can be worked through. “A person who grows up getting too frequent rewards will not have persistence, because they’ll quit when the rewards disappear.”

First, I wonder how these findings relates to researchers such as Edward Deci (author of Why We Do What We Do)’s work on intrinsic motivation and autonomy support. Despite the fact that dangling a “carrot” in front of someone is supposed to increase their motivation, Deci found that many, if not most, reward systems weaken intrinsic motivation instead of strengthening it. How does the “reward” of praise relate to his findings? If we reward students with praise less frequently, does that strengthen intrinsic motivation?

Related posts: Power of Praise (1)
Power of Praise (2)

Posts Tagged as "Po Bronson"

Power of Praise (2)

Friday, November 13th, 2009

In an earlier post, I wrote about Po Bronson’s New York Magazine article on praise. In it, he covers recent research that shows how praising students for their effort (which they can control) increases motivation, but praising students for their intelligence (which they can’t control) undermines motivation.

Here’s some more crazy good stuff from the same article. Carol Dweck and her protégée Lisa Blackwell conducted a semester-long intervention to improve students’ math scores.

“In a single semester, Blackwell reversed the students’ longtime trend of decreasing math grades.

“The only difference between the control group and the test group were two lessons, a total of 50 minutes spent teaching not math but a single idea: that the brain is a muscle. Giving it a harder workout makes you smarter. That alone improved their math scores.”

I recently had an opportunity to test this out with a rising 5th grader. I asked him to do three pages from his workbook for our next meeting. He came back the next week having completed most of it… in the car on the way to tutoring that day.

Clearly, this pretty much defeated the point of giving him homework, because he was still doing all his math in one big lump all on the same day. Remembering what I’d learned from reading Carol Dweck, I seized this opportunity to explain to him that the brain is like a muscle: when you use it, it gets stronger. And like a muscle, when you spread out your workouts, you don’t have to train as much. I told him that it was great that he’d done most of the work, but it would help him even more if he spaced it out.

We spent some time creating a better plan for the next week. I tried to be really autonomy supportive. I asked him which days would be good to do math work, and labeled the pages of the workbook with the dates he picked. We talked about what time of day would work best for him, and where in his house he liked to do his homework.

I remembered what Carol Dweck had said, that it’s much more likely that we’ll actually things we don’t really want to do if we visualize ourselves doing them instead of just having some sort of vague plan. So after we had picked his dates, times, and location, I asked him to close his eyes and visualize himself finishing dinner, carrying his plates to the kitchen, walking to the living room, picking up his workbook, and sitting down and doing a page of math.

So… it worked!!!!! Next week, when he came back, he had done all three pages from the workbook! Although he’d changed the plan a little bit, and practiced 2 days instead of 3, it was a huge improvement over the past week.

The absolute best part of all was when his Mom picked him up and I commented on the improvement in him doing his work, she said, “That was all him.” This rising fifth-grader had taken total responsibility for the plan!!!

Update: This same research is covered in detail in Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman‘s amazing new book, NurtureShock. I highly recommend you read the whole thing!

Posts Tagged as "Po Bronson"

Why Sleep is Awesome

Wednesday, November 4th, 2009

Here’s a thought-provoking article about kids and sleep from one of my favorite writers, Po Bronson.

Compared to 30 years ago, most kids get about an hour less sleep per night. Shocking fact: losing just this one hour of sleep causes kids to function cognitively as if they are two years younger. Adults are affected too. After 2 weeks of getting only 6 hours of sleep per night, adults act “just as impaired as someone who has stayed awake for 24 hours straight.”

My favorite bitlet:

Sleep is a biological imperative for every species on Earth. But humans alone try to resist its pull. Instead, we see sleep not as a physical need but a statement of character. It’s considered a sign of weakness to admit fatigue, and it’s a sign of strength to refuse to succumb to slumber. Sleep is for wusses.

(Bronson and his collaborator, Ashley Merryman, also discuss this same research in their recent book NurtureShock, which I highly recommend–it’s totally amazing.)

Related links:
Why Sleep Is Awesome #2
Meet Your Pineal Gland
Entrain Your Brain
Regain Your Sleeping Powers