ADLC teachers’ stories provide a great window to all the experience and collective skills that ADLC has to offer its students. Read more from Shelley Grey-Sortland.


We don’t usually equate the lyrics of “Praise You” with education.

After all, the lyrics are catchy but alarmingly repetitive (I counted a total of twenty-two words used throughout the whole song). I thought it was just a song to shake my groove thing to in my kitchen—a blast of fun from the late 90s. But Fatboy Slim (don’t even get me started on the brilliance of that oxymoron) laid out little pearls of pedagogical wisdom in his lyrics: “I have to celebrate you, baby / I have to praise you like I should.”  Who knew that Fatboy Slim knew so much about the importance of using process praise rather than ability praise in helping to create resilient learners?

What is Praise Anyway?

Praise, by definition, seems simple enough. As an action, it’s when we express approval or admiration of someone else. Excellent—now we can move onto other issues, right? Nope—not so fast. First, we have to decide whether praising students is a good idea at all. Alfie Kohn, an American author and speaker in the fields of education and parenting, has been outspoken about the harm praise can cause. He writes that praise is “a pat on the head, ‘pat’ being short for ‘patronizing,’ that’s offered when the child (or student or employee) impresses or pleases the parent (or teacher or manager)” (2012). This is food for thought (and quite a hearty meal at that), so let’s set that debate aside for now and assume we’ve already decide to use praise in our classrooms or in our homes.

I have a six-year-old daughter, and my husband and I have always been very careful not to emphasize beauty as something praiseworthy. In our house, we never say, “You’re such a pretty girl.”  Instead, we’ve lauded her intelligence: “You’re so smart!” Hooray us, right? Apparently not. As is so often the case, the simple solution was . . . well, not the best solution. Better, but not best.

Getting Complicit with Implicit Theories

It turns out that once you’ve decided it’s okay to praise your students, you need to know exactly how to do it without taking the chance that your praise may actually cause more damage than good. It all goes back to the implicit theories we all have about ourselves. Dweck and Yeager (2012) write that students can range from holding a fixed or entity theory of intelligence or personality to one that is more malleable or incremental (p. 303). What’s the difference? Students who hold to the entity theory see intelligence as unchangeable—it is what it is. You’ve either got it or you don’t. Students who hold an incremental theory see intelligence as “something that can be grown or developed over time” (p. 303). I liken this theory to the old adage (and my personal motto), you reap what you sow—the key point being that you do the sowing. Given this theory, it isn’t difficult to make some predictions about which students tend to be more resilient learners.

Students and their …

Entity Theory

Incremental Theory

Goals

 

Students care about looking smart.

 

Students are eager to learn.

 

Beliefs about effort

 

Needing to put in an effort means they lack natural ability (i.e., if they were “smart,” it would come easily).

 

Effort is what leads to success and growth.

 

Attributions to their setbacks

 

Setbacks mean they’re “dumb.”

 

Setbacks just mean they need to work harder and alter their strategies.

 

Learning strategies in the face of setbacks

 

Students may give up, consider cheating, or become defensive.

 

Students decide to work harder and try different approaches to the problem.

 

(adapted from Yeager and Dweck, 2012, p. 304)

Sing Those Praises

If the goal is to help students adopt an incremental theory of intelligence, you can’t actually praise their intelligence. I know—it seems counter-intuitive. So what might this look like in practice? Ability praise would say, “You did really well on that assignment; you must be really smart at this subject.” It seems harmless enough, doesn’t it? But if we contrast this with process praise, which would say, “You did really well on that assignment; you must have worked really hard on it,” the difference is much clearer. Ability praise leads students to believe they’re successful only at tasks they’re already inherently good at; consequently, when they’re faced with an academic setback, they lack the confidence and resiliency to meet and overcome this obstacle. In a study involving Grade 5 students, those who were praised for their intelligence (ability praise) after completing a test wanted to complete only easy problem-solving questions; they scored lower on a post-praise test than they had on the initial test even though the tests were of equal difficulty; and they were more likely to claim they had performed better than they actually had (Yeager & Dweck, 2012, p. 310).

Process praise, on the other hand, leads to self-efficacy. Students in the same study who were praised for their efforts performed better on the subsequent test and “asked to do more challenging problems in the future” (Yeager & Dweck, 2012, p. 310). What a marked difference! Yeager and Dweck conclude that “We should not praise children for being ‘smart’ when they do well, but rather, to promote resilience, praise them for the process they engaged in—their effort, their strategies, their focus, or their persistence” (2012, p. 311). By doing this, we help students understand that they have the skills they need to tackle any challenge.

Words of Comfort

I think of myself as “not a math person,” as anyone who has watched me try to calculate a tip can attest to. When I was growing up, my teachers and parents encouraged me to work hard in math, but when it became clear it just wasn’t my “thing,” they comforted me by pointing out all the other things I was good at. I’ve never really thought much about it because it’s such an obvious fact about me. But now I wonder if I could have been “a math person,” or at least could have been more confident about my skills, if I’d been taught to think differently.

As teachers and parents, we want to provide comfort to children when they need it.  But how should we choose our words? Our intent may be to comfort a student who struggles in a subject when we say, “Don’t worry about it—it just isn’t your strength. We’re all better at some things than we are at others. Look how good you are at (whatever)!”  This entity comfort seems reasonable, doesn’t it? But studies show that when we offer this kind of comfort, it can lead to low confidence and lower expectations for both improvement and overall performance (Yeager & Dweck, 2012, p. 311). When students need comforting feedback, it’s much more beneficial to point out that they could be more successful with better strategies than it is to tell them, “It’s not your fault—it’s just not your thing.”

Time Over Talent

One of our family mottos is time over talent. This little gem came from a family member whose daughters went to a basketball camp where the coach drilled them all day long for seven grueling days. It’s something we say to our children all the time. We want them to know that it isn’t about how naturally gifted you are (on the court, in the classroom, with knitting needles). Rather, it’s about the time, the effort, the strategies, and the attitude you bring with you every day—whether it’s a day you rock it or a day you don’t. We need to teach our students that time, effort, and attitude will win over raw talent, and we need to teach them that their intelligence isn’t fixed in stone—it’s something they have the power to grow.

References

Kohn, A.  (2012, February 3). Criticizing (Common Criticisms of) Praise.  [Web log].  Retrieved from http://www.alfiekohn.org/blogs/criticizing-common-criticisms-praise/

Yeager, D. S., & Dweck, C. S. (2012). Mindsets That Promote Resilience: When Students Believe That Personal Characteristics Can Be Developed. Educational Psychologist, 47(4), 302–314.

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