Thursday, February 22, 2007

The inverse power of praise

A few paragraphs from an article by Po Bronson that any parent, student, or teacher might benefit from reading:

For the past ten years, psychologist Carol Dweck and her team at Columbia (she's now at Stanford) studied the effect of praise on students in a dozen New York schools. Her seminal work -- a series of experiments on 400 fifth-graders -- paints the picture most clearly.

Dweck sent four female research assistants into New York fifth-grade classrooms. The researchers would take a single child out of the classroom for a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of puzzles -- puzzles easy enough that all the children would do fairly well. Once the child finished the test, the researchers told each student his score, then gave him a single line of praise. Randomly divided into groups, some were praised for their intelligence. They were told, "You must be smart at this." Other students were praised for their effort: "You must have worked really hard."

Why just a single line of praise? "We wanted to see how sensitive children were," Dweck explained. "We had a hunch that one line might be enough to see an effect."

Then the students were given a choice of test for the second round. One choice was a test that would be more difficult than the first, but the researchers told the kids that they'd learn a lot from attempting the puzzles. The other choice, Dweck's team explained, was an easy test, just like the first. Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The "smart" kids took the cop-out.

Why did this happen? "When we praise children for their intelligence," Dweck wrote in her study summary, "we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes." And that’s what the fifth-graders had done: They'd chosen to look smart and avoid the risk of being embarrassed.

In a subsequent round, none of the fifth-graders had a choice. The test was difficult, designed for kids two years ahead of their grade level. Predictably, everyone failed. But again, the two groups of children, divided at random at the study's start, responded differently. Those praised for their effort on the first test assumed they simply hadn't focused hard enough on this test. "They got very involved, willing to try every solution to the puzzles," Dweck recalled. "Many of them remarked, unprovoked, 'This is my favorite test.'" Not so for those praised for their smarts. They assumed their failure was evidence that they weren't really smart at all. "Just watching them, you could see the strain. They were sweating and miserable."

Having artificially induced a round of failure, Dweck's researchers then gave all the fifth-graders a final round of tests that were engineered to be as easy as the first round. Those who had been praised for their effort significantly improved on their first score -- by about 30 percent. Those who’d been told they were smart did worse than they had at the very beginning -- by about 20 percent.

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."

In follow-up interviews, Dweck discovered that those who think that innate intelligence is the key to success begin to discount the importance of effort. I am smart, the kids' reasoning goes; I don't need to put out effort. Expending effort becomes stigmatized -- it's public proof that you can't cut it on your natural gifts.
That last paragraph helps me understand why so many college students regard their abilities as innate and unchangeable. Self-proclaimed "A students," who have no doubt been told again and again how smart they are, often fail to realize that an A in a college class might require some greater expenditure of effort. More numerous, in my experience, are students who say that they "can't write," that they "suck" at writing, that they're "no good" at English, as if their ability were, again, unchangeable, beyond their control, and not a matter of dedicated practice and increasing mastery.

Bronson's article also helps me understand why so many students shut down when facing a difficult job of reading. It seems to me so obvious -- poignantly obvious -- that reading literature requires and rewards effort, that making one's way into a poem or novel requires a real investment of time and a willingness to proceed, as John Holt puts it, "on the basis of incomplete understanding and information," with the confidence that things will later become clearer. That investment of time involves thinking and rethinking, making and remaking assumptions, marking up the book, circling back to an earlier line or passage in light of a later one. I like to show my students how readers annotate poems -- the page turning into a Talmudic assemblage of older and newer commentary. I like to explain now and then how my understanding of a poem has changed and deepened over time. And I like to rely upon voices more authoritative than my own:
Oprah Winfrey: "‬Do people tell you they have to keep going over the words sometimes‭?"

Toni Morrison: "‬That,‭ ‬my dear,‭ ‬is called reading.‭"
Or as William Carlos Williams says in the poem‭ "January Morning,‭"
            I wanted to write a poem
that you would understand.
For what good is it to me
if you can't understand it‭?
                        But you got to try hard‭ --
Trying hard, I realize, was what my parents always encouraged me to do. "Do the best you can" was one refrain of my childhood -- a lot more helpful for the work of learning than "You're so smart!" (My own children too know that they should do the best they can.)
How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise (New York)

Related posts
Andrew Sullivan on self-esteem
Good advice from Rob Zseleczky
John Holt on learning and difficulty
Zadie Smith on reading

And from Shakespeare annotated (A photo by murky)
[Thanks to Elaine Fine and Stefan Hagemann for pointing me to Po Bronson's article.]

comments: 5

Stefan Hagemann said...

A new study released Thursday by the Department of Education and reported on by the Chicago Tribune’s Mitchell Landsberg appears to confirm your thoughts about students “who have no doubt been told again and again how smart they are” but who struggle when they face greater academic or intellectual challenges. Researchers compared the transcripts of high school seniors going back to 1990 with students who graduated in 2005 and found that, “the 2005 graduates had racked up more high school credits, had taken more college preparatory classes and had strikingly higher grade-point averages. The average GPA rose from 2.68 in 1990 to 2.98 in 2005.
“But the standardized test results showed that 12-grade reading scores have been dropping since 1992, casting doubt on what students are learning in those college prep classes.
“As for math…. Fewer than one-fourth of seniors scored in the ‘proficient’ range.”
A friend of mine who teaches philosophy just returned from Dallas where participants learned that reading proficiency is the single greatest indicator of college success. But you wouldn’t know it by the efforts to curb attrition around here.

Lee said...

Interesting comment above.

And Michael, as chance would have it, I also linked to this article on the same day - though nowhere near as thoughtfully.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for the comments, Stefan and Lee. Re: "efforts to curb attrition": I'm noticing that they sometimes involve the redefinition of literacy, minimizing the written word and emphasizing images.

Sthenno said...

I realize I'm commenting on a blog post from 4+ years ago, but I just want to say that I was a victim of being told I was smart. It was only in my mid 20's that it really sunk in that I could get better at something by practicing.

Despite this post being ancient in blog-years, I don't think this idea has really penetrated the public consciousness yet. I am going to do my best to make sure my daughter gets a different message than the one I got, and I hope that by the time she's in school things are a little better on that front as well.

Michael Leddy said...

Sthenno, I think you’re right about that it’s going to take more time for this idea to hit home. Good for you that you figured it out and can pass it on to your daughter.