The power of praise

I’ve really enjoyed meeting parents and families of students at the Academy over the past fortnight, and it’s been great to get such positive feedback about the work we do. It’s a real privilege to work with such an engaged, interested support from home and it makes all the difference!

One thing that I shared at the “Meet the Headteacher” evenings was a summary of a study completed by Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, into the impact of praise on children. She had a theory that the type of praise you gave a child had a big impact on their achievement. The study is summarized in this video from the United States:

In the study, Dweck gave students an IQ test and praised the students in two ways. The first group was praised for their intelligence: “well done, you must be really smart at this.” The second group was praised for their effort: “well done, you must have worked really hard at this.” What she found was remarkable. The students who were praised for their intelligence were less likely to take on a more challenging test afterwards, more likely to lie about their scores, more likely to give up easily, and actually ended up doing worse on a final IQ test. In contrast, the group who were praised for their effort were much more likely to take on a more challenging task, less likely to give up, and ended up improving their scores on the final test. Why should this be?

Dweck’s theory is that praise for intelligence can create what she calls a “fixed mindset” where learners create an image of themselves – I am really smart at this. This self-image works against learning because the students don’t want to jeopardise that image, the thing that has gained them praise, because they perceive that it is the thing that adults value about them. Therefore they are less likely to push themselves to a more challenging task because, if they fail, they will no longer be “really smart at this” and therefore they will be a failure. 

Contrast this with the group praised for their effort. Dweck’s theory suggests that this type of praise can create a “growth mindset” where learners see that effort is what is valued by the adults – their strategies, approaches and attitudes – rather than the outcome. Therefore taking on a difficult task is more likely to get them praise because they will need to try hard. If they fail, they will have failed the task, but they will not be a failure, because they will still have done what got them the praise in the first place – tried hard.

It’s a really thought-provoking study! How often have I said to my own children, either at home or in my classrooms, “you’re so brilliant at this!” or “you’re so clever!” Have I actually been undermining them in my attempts to build them up? I want them to take on difficult challenges, to persevere, and not to be put off when things get difficult. That’s why, now, I’m very careful to praise the strategies and the effort that I see – the process – rather than the person. By ensuring that students understand that it was their approach and their attitude that made them successful, rather than some innate quality that is part of them, it means that they can transfer that approach and attitude to other situations and be successful there, too. Why not try it?

Growth vs Fixed Mindsets

6 thoughts on “The power of praise

  1. I’ve read or heard about this a while ago and it makes a great deal of sense. Intelligence without application is no good to anyone. I’ve tried to apply it with my own kids, but you don’t always get to see whether hard work has been done to get a particular outcome.

    Do you praise effort, even if you don’t know that much was applied?

    For example, if a student makes little effort but achieves a good result, but you praise the effort, will it still encourage them to put in more effort?

    I think in a class context it should work well. If one student sees another student being praised for their hard work, then it would encourage them to also work hard. It is also achievable regardless of ability.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Agreed on all fronts! In answer to your question, I would praise the outcome but suggest that the student needs a more challenging task next time to continue to learn and grow. It’s not their fault they found it easy – but as a teacher I need to learn from that.

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  2. Pingback: The power of praise | Teaching: Leading Learning

  3. It is important to note that Carol Dweck has recently blogged
    that she thinks many schools are taking a misguided approach whereby they think that simply praising effort rather than process creates growth mindsets. This creates a danger that effort praise can become a consolation prize unless it is accompanied with advice and guidance about how to correct errors and make further progress. One might think that this is stating the obvious, is an essential part of what teachers do, but Dweck clearly feels the need to point it out.

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  4. Pingback: Strategic Priorities for Churchill | The Headteacher's Blog

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