What harm could some words of praise like "You learned that so quickly, you're so smart!" possibly do to your child or students?
Much, apparently. That's according to a BBC article called The words that could unlock your child. I found the article so useful that I have shared it with some colleagues.
What makes the above statement less benign than it looks is that it praises talent, which is something that hingest on genetic inheritance.
The writer, Matthew Syed, argued by citing some research studies that what sets the top performers and those with lower levels of atainment apart is not that the former group learn faster but simply that they practise for more hours. What often looks like a particular gift that some students possess is often the product of extra tuition at home by their parents.
Why does that sort of extra practice make all the difference? Syed said that it is because "over time, with the right kind of practice, we change so dramatically". What is more, it is not just the body that changes but also the anatomy of the brain. This lends strong support to what Norman Doidge has said about the plasticity of the brain in his book The Brain That Changes Itself.
Back to that statement which praises "smartness". The problem lies in its perpetuation of the "fixed mindset", a belief that excellence is all about talent. Why bother to work hard then?
On the other hand, the "growth mindset", a belief that effort trumps talent, will make a child persevere and "approach tasks with gusto".
To illustrate this difference, Syed quoted an experiment by psychologist Carol Dweck many years ago, in which 400 students were given a simple puzzle, after which half of them were praised for intelligence ("Wow, you must be really smart!") and half for effort ("Wow, you must be hard working!"). The result showed that the group raised for intelligence not only tended to choose an easy test as a next challenge but also showed a 20% decline in performance in that next test which was actually of equal difficulty to the first. The group praised for effort, on the other hand, chose the tough test and showed a 30% improvement in score.
"These were some of the clearest findings I've seen," the researcher Dweck said afterwards. "Praising children's intelligence harms motivation and it harms performance."
So what children decide about effort and talent will make a world of difference, and how we praise them has a huge influence on which of these they attribute their performance to.