Praise for Intelligence or for Effort?


I continue to be strongly influenced by the work of Carol Dweck on Mindsets (see here) and was delighted to discover this video clip to remind me to praise for effort rather than for cleverness.

Dweck illustrates how we learn either a fixed or growth mindset and how fundamental this is to our ability to learn new things.

We are all ‘ exquisitely sensitive to what’s going on in the situation, what others value and what we are being judged on’. So let’s help our kids (and ourselves) to ‘feel really smart’ when we are working on challenges that are difficult – because that’s the way we all learn.


A Tale of Two Children

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Matilda is a book child.

From the time she was just a few months old she sat in rapt attention, under the crook of a loved one’s arm, listening to words that flowed like the great, grey-green, greasy Limpopo River; words that told of hungry caterpillars, patchwork elephants and wild things in faraway places. She has been bathed in rich language.

At 4 her vocabulary, analytical skills and comprehension were immensely well developed and she is now well on the way to attaining high grades in all her exams. Crucially, Matilda loves to communicate. Her first recognisable writing was on a postcard to her grandma; who correctly decoded the message, love from Matilda. Her reading skills developed in harmony with her desire to make connection through the written as well as the spoken word.

By the age of 7 she had become a fluent, enthusiastic reader and writer.

Mind you, Matilda’s exuberant approach to life and learning is diminishing as she goes through school. She now evaluates herself against others, and finds herself wanting at times. She is afraid of not being smart enough. Through no one’s fault, she judges herself and her peers with set criteria, with a fixed mindset. She is in danger of rejecting opportunities to learn. She somehow has got the impression that kids who are successful don’t make mistakes; they are always clever. This means that she rarely takes risks with her learning. But she writes well-constructed, beautifully presented essays.

And now we come to our 2nd child: Leo.

He had a similar love of stories learned from his earliest experiences. However, Leo’s brain is wired differently from Matilda’s.

He gets stuck on words like pulling and pushing, because and table.

He keeps switching letters round. It’s not deliberate, just something that he does. He sees letters streaming through the air, whole blocks of them, borne on currents, occupying a zone beneath the threshold of the comprehensible, and tries to pluck and stick them to the page as best he can. But it’s an imprecise science: by the time he’s got a few words pinned down, the others have floated on ahead or changed their meaning, and Manchester’s’ ‘chest’ has turned into an old oak coffer, the queen’s coronation into a pink flower. (Tom McCarthy,  ‘C’)

While Matilda scribbles neatly and assiduously, and always faultlessly, inscribing each word as it falls from the teacher’s mouth, Leo, bathing in the phrase’s afterglow, usually gives up after a few lines and just lets the words billow around him, losing himself in their shapes and patterns, bright and alive.

Whenever he can, Leo communicates in a different way, in which reading and writing form only a part and not the whole. He uses images and sounds to demonstrate his knowledge and understanding and to make his point. He persists in making himself heard and seen, communicating with the tools he finds comfortable using. He is, together with others, building and creating a new language that combines many of the features of conventional languages but is more of a hybrid of many different modes of expression.

Leo’s skills lie in making sense, not of a body of known content, but of contexts that are continually changing.

Leo has found that learning to think for himself is more important than simply learning to read and write. His deliberate, serious and sustained practice in creating multi-modal texts arises from his constant self-criticism, a  restlessness, a passion to aim just beyond his capability. He has resolved to dust himself off and try again if he falters. He has a daily commitment to becoming better.

Unlike Matilda, he understands that talent is a process rather than a thing. He has learnt from his earliest days to regard failure not as a verdict on his potential but as a doorway to an unlearned skill. He has learned that it is safe to fail, to experiment, to explore a multitude of possible answers; to develop his own voice. Sadly much of Leo’s energy and effort are more often deployed once he gets home from school!

Which child is most likely to thrive in this new era?

I think therefore I am where I want to be


I have been to 2 talks this week on much the same theme. The first was Norman Doidge talking abut his research and book on ‘The Brian that Changes Itself’. The second was at the Scottish Learning Festival where Carol Dweck spoke about how we can develop resilience and the capacity to learn. Both emphasised the plasticity of the brain. Academics have caught up with practitioners in recognising that intelligence is no longer regarded as fixed, but rather like a muscle to be exercised.
Doidge talked about the ‘doctrine of the unchanging brain’ which, for 400 years, decreed that if you were born with neurological difficulties, then you were ‘hard-wired’, genetically predetermined, to mental dysfunction. This had significant effects on the provision, or not, of opportunities for those children who did not learn as efficiently as expected.

Because the brain was thought to be incapable of re-organising itself, nothing could be done. Intelligence was deemed to be fixed; therefore human nature itself was fixed. However, Doidge and fellows are now able to prove what many of us working with young people have known intuitively that people can change, can learn and surmount enormous difficulties with application, support and sheer determination.
Dweck’s depiction of the contrast between learners and non-learners, between those with a fixed and a growth mindset, reflected these points. She talked about the difference between ‘looking clever’ and real learning. She demonstrated the power of praise, both for good and for ill. Praise for effort (‘You really worked hard’) gives youngsters a recipe for recovering from failure; while praise for intelligence (‘You are really clever’) allows children to retreat to their comfort zones, blame others for lack of success or try to feel superior.dweck

Both speakers trod somewhat familar paths , and I take issue with some of Doidge’s conclusions for practitioners which I shall explore later. However, it was good to be stimulated by internationally known academics.