I happened to stumble upon the book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck, PhD.D after it was given to my mom by my little sister's school to read. My younger sister has a learning disability in reading and is therefore attending a reading program this summer. The school handed out copies of Mindset for all the parents to read. Of course, being a teacher I was instantly curious and snagged the book quickly to read it myself first.
I'll admit, I was 98% skeptical about what I would find in reading this book. I'm still skeptical on some of the findings and statistics (one chapter states that 4-year-olds were reading about Daedalus and Icarus and 2ND graders were discussing Shakespeare), HOWEVER, there is one valuable lesson to be learned from this book as an educator: be mindful of the language you use when praising students.
The number one piece of advice that I will be trying to follow come this fall when the school year starts up again is to be careful of the language I use when praising students (this works for parents, too, I'm just not a parent yet). Based on her research and the research of other qualified individuals, praising kids' abilities such as saying "you're so smart!" or "you're such a natural artist!" actually hurts kids in the future. The rationalization is that kids will feel pressure to always live up to those expectations; failure is not an option. The future negative implications are that 1) kids who were praised in this way won't be able to handle criticisms 2) kids will feel like they don't need to put effort into anything because they're naturally gifted and 3) kids will be afraid to fail. From my own experience in teaching so far (granted 2 1/2 years), I found this to be true. Students are afraid of failure. They don't like it. They don't like being wrong and they're afraid of applying effort because they might not like the outcome.
Dweck specifically writes, "these children of praise have now entered the workforce, and sure enough, many can't function without getting a sticker for their every move." Dweck continues, "we now have a workforce full of people who need constant reassurance and can't take criticism. Not a recipe for success in business, where taking on challenges, showing persistence, and admitting and correcting mistakes are essential." I am a child of the praise generation. I can completely admit that her description fits me. I've never been able to handle criticism well. I make excuses, I rationalize, and, though not often, blame others. I always feel like I know what I'm supposed to do or what I'm expected to do and if I don't meet expectations I feel like that doesn't reflect what I know or am capable of, and therefore, I take it personally. Luckily, I've grown to a point where I can reasonably handle criticism, but I still don't like it. What's more is that teachers aren't often rewarded. I was told by a Spanish professor that teaching is one of the hardest careers to have because it is a thankless job. Thanks and praise come along in the forms of thank you cards from former students years after they graduate- and that's if you're lucky. I have more growing to do, especially if Spanish prof is right!
The alternative is to praise students for effort. Praise them for taking on challenges and for wanting to learn new things. Complimenting on effort teaches students that they have the ability to learn, grow, and change. They can become smarter. Furthermore, using positive language high-lighting effort enforces confidence and self-assurance. Kids get the message: it is OK to fail.
All teachers want students to learn and grow in their learning and to make mistakes and learn from them. I will be praising students for their efforts instead of their natural talents. (I've done the other- I've written on English essays, "Wow- you're a natural writer! You should take Honors English next year!") As a new teacher, it's not easy to figure out how to motivate students. The ones who show interest are easy to work with, but what about the kid who acts like he/she doesn't care? (Which by the way I love when teaching an elective and a subject I'm so passionate about like Spanish!). How do I help this child to develop what Dweck calls a "growth mindset"? If I practice what she preaches, how will it impact that child's future? particularly if the student faces the attitude from others (family, friends, teachers) that he/she is not smart, not capable, not worthy of the attention to grow and learn?
The Mindset website
Worth checking out is Brainology- a program that teaches students how their brain works when they learn
Dweck, Carol S. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballentine Books: New York, 2006.
Personal review of the book: The central idea is that you either have a "fixed mindset" in which you believe intelligence, personality, etc. are inherent traits that can't change or a "growth mindset" in which you feel these things can, in fact, change. The writing's not great- the author admits she intended to have a conversational tone. It leaves a lot to be desired- it often poses questions without answers, it mentions specific example references, but does not elaborate on them, and it's very repetitive. The best information comes toward the second half of the book. I'd suggest reading the first few pages so get the gist of her idea, and then read the second half which gives ideas for how to apply the "growth mindset" to your own life. An alternate subtitle to this book should be: Another Way to See that the Glass is Half Full