Praising Intellect, Praising Effort

by Matthew Koslowski on August 5, 2009
in Essays

When I was in middle and high school, perhaps even before starting with elementary school, I was a smart kid. Being smart was a major component in my identity.

Even now I can hear the voices of my mother and father praising me, “You’re so smart, Matthew.” My teachers too would tell me that I was “bright” or “smart”, one or two went so far as to say that I was “gifted.”

What if all those well meaning adults were doing me a disservice by offering me the praise that they did?

Self-definition and self-narrative

Though I defined myself as a “smart kid”, I did not accept the narrative that many of my peers did, the definition that requires a “smart kid” to chase grades and chase so-called intellectual achievements. I saw the rat race to be valedictorian as just that, a rat race.

Early I learned that the purpose of education was to expand the mind and to build character. I studied because I was curious about the world. Of course I recognized that achieving high scores would open doors to me. But I realized that the doors would open to further learning and deeper understandings. I sought to earn good grades so that I would have opportunities to continue to advance my education.

Even going through school, I noticed that many of my peers looked not at their education but at their grades. Some of my formative experiences gave me a flexibility that perhaps some of my peers lacked.

In good company

I was deeply involved in taekwondo through an American Taekwondo Association school from an early age but I was impaired by my slight physical disability: I was born with a clubbed left foot. Clubfoot is common enough: Lord Byron had a clubbed right foot. More impressive is that Kristi Yamaguchi and Mia Hamm, both star athletes, were born with clubfeet.

There were things I could not physically accomplish with my left foot. But I wanted to achieve, so I worked and worked. My parents praised my dedication. My teachers praised my drive. My private instructors praised my work ethic, taking private lessons to reach my goals.

In school, I was praised for my mind and how easily things came to me. At taekwondo, I was praised for my effort. The favorite saying of the head of my dojang, Mr. James Kenney, was, “It is not practice that makes perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” I took this saying to heart.

The nitty gritty

Reading my favorite section of the Boston Sunday Globe, Ideas, I came across an article entitled “The truth about grit”. The article hit home.

Jonah Lerner reminds us that our myth of the genius, using the example of Isaac Newton and the story of the apple, is just that a myth. Newton began thinking seriously about gravity in 1666 but did not publish his theories on gravity until 1687, twenty-one years later. “Newton also had an astonishing ability to persist in the face of obstacles,” Lerner writes, “to stick with the same stubborn mystery – why did the apple fall, but the moon remain in the sky? – until he found the answer.”

Imagine, for a moment, two people of equal intelligence. One of these people continues in the face of adversity while the other is a shrinking violet. Which do you think is going to accomplish more?

In praising intellect alone, we are doing the people we seek to praise a disservice. Alfie Kohn speaks at length of praise as a reward and the demotivating effect of praise on learning in his book Punished by Rewards. Hidden in praise of intellect — “You’re so smart!”, for example — is an assumption that for smart people, effort and work are not required. With this praise we communicate to our children an idea of intelligence called, among other things, “fixed intelligence” or “innate intelligence,” the idea that there is a fixed quotient of intelligence that remains fundamentally constant throughout life.

The perils of praise

But intelligence quotient (IQ) is not fixed. This has been demonstrated. Both Lerner and Kohn look to Carol S. Dweck in their essays. One of her experiments left me speechless. Jonah Lerner summarizes her findings thus:
Interestingly, it also appears that praising children for their intelligence can make them less likely to persist in the face of challenges, a crucial element of grit. For much of the last decade, Dweck and her colleagues have tracked hundreds of fifth-graders in 12 different New York City schools. The children were randomly assigned to two groups, both of which took an age-appropriate version of the IQ test. After taking the test, one group was praised for their intelligence – “You must be smart at this,” the researcher said – while the other group was praised for their effort and told they “must have worked really hard.”

Dweck then gave the same fifth-graders another test. This test was designed to be extremely difficult – it was an intelligence test for eighth-graders – but Dweck wanted to see how they would respond to the challenge. The students who were initially praised for their effort worked hard at figuring out the puzzles. Kids praised for their smarts, on the other hand, quickly became discouraged.

The final round of intelligence tests was the same difficulty level as the initial test. The students who had been praised for their effort raised their score, on average, by 30 percent. This result was even more impressive when compared to the students who had been praised for their intelligence: their scores on the final test dropped by nearly 20 percent. A big part of success, Dweck says, stems from our beliefs about what leads to success.
– “The truth about grit,” in The Boston Sunday Globe, August 2nd, 2009, by Jonah Lerner (emphasis mine)

Read the findings again:

  • Fifth-graders who were praised for their intelligence after taking a fifth-grade age-appropriate IQ test, gave up more quickly on the more challenging IQ test designed for eight-graders. Then, when given a second fifth-grade age-appropriate IQ test, their scores declined by nearly 20%.
  • Fifth-graders praised for their effort on the fifth-grade IQ test persisted in the face of the eighth-grade IQ test and then their scores on the second fifth-grade IQ test increased by 30%.

Children learn young to detect sincere versus insincere praise as well as sincere versus insincere criticism. The way that praise is used now carries a social stigma with it, in fact: children believe that teachers praise only when a student has reached the limits of his or her ability and need outside help. In fact, children believe that someone offering sincere, critical appraisals of their performances that include what was done well and what needs improvement, is someone offering belief in the children’s ability.

Praise as unconditional love

Carol S. Dweck’s work is not new. She has been studying motivation in children since the mid-1980’s. In fact, the research that Jonah Lerner cites is not new: Po Bronson published an article called “How Not to Talk to Your Kids: the inverse power of praise” in New York Magazine in February 2007.

He speaks right to the reasons many offer universal, blanket praise to their children:

…I recognized that praising him with the universal “You’re great—I’m proud of you” was a way I expressed unconditional love.

Offering praise has become a sort of panacea for the anxieties of modern parenting. Out of our children’s lives from breakfast to dinner, we turn it up a notch when we get home. In those few hours together, we want them to hear the things we can’t say during the day—We are in your corner, we are here for you, we believe in you.
– “How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The inverse power of praise,” in New York Magazine, February 12, 2007 by Po Bronson

But, as Kohn so forcefully argues and as Bronson himself came to understand, in reaching for universal and generic praise, we ignore the individuality of our children. Although we want to express, “I love you always,” I believe that what we often demonstrate is, “I don’t know you well enough to praise anything specific about you.”

Reclaiming praise

The course forward, if we are going to reclaim praise at all, is that any praise we give must be informational assessment regarding performance. Praise needs to be offered as feedback. Rather than being doled out in an effort to bolster the self-esteem of our children, any praise offered needs to be targeted towards what was effective and what needs to be developed.


4 Responses to “Praising Intellect, Praising Effort”
  1. Lee Marcotte says:

    This is a very thoughtful and well written comment. Thank you.

  2. Matt Ziegenfuss says:

    I also found myself in the “gifted” program at school, but fell into the batch that then quit trying. Been paying for it ever since. Very profound. Thanks!

  3. erica says:

    I really enjoyed reading this. thank you.

  4. John Spencer says:

    Well-written. What you described was so much of how I felt being labeled as “gifted” and “honors” and then perpetually dissapointing teachers when I earned B’s by failing to turn in what I considered to be busy work.

    I just ran into your blog and added it to my Reader. I really like your style and ideas.