Wise Words

A Growth Mindset

November 8, 2017

You’ve probably heard about the work of Carol Dweck, Stanford University professor and author of the book, Mindsets. Her work centers on the importance of developing a growth mindset — the belief that intelligence isn’t fixed or rare but can actually be developed. I talk about it during parent tours and I’ve even written about it in the Sandbox a time or two.

So, I was intrigued by a recent research article published in Psychological Science that touched on one particular aspect of Dr. Dweck’s work. For many of us (and, I’ve fallen into this trap a time or two myself when my own children were growing up) it’s easy to tell a child that he or she is smart. It comes naturally. The child is happy when we say it and it makes us feel good because we’ve made them feel good. But, the research conducted by Dr. Li Zhao and her colleagues suggests that telling a child that he or she is “smart” may do more harm than good.

Zhou and her team of international researchers conducted an experiment with 300 three and five year-olds. Using a card game, the researchers had the children guess a number on a card. The children were told that if they guessed correctly a certain number of times they would win a prize. The experiment started with a trial period where all of the children were told that they had guessed correctly. Now, the interesting part. When the real game began, one group of children was told, “You are smart.” Another testing group was simply told, “You did well.” And a final group — the baseline group — received no praise. The game was set up so that all of the children picked correctly on the first two trials but incorrectly on the next three trials. Then, the researchers would leave the room after getting the children to promise not to peek at the cards while they were gone.

The results were interesting. A significantly higher portion of the children who were told they were smart peeked, demonstrating that even very young children are sensitive to feedback.

Heyman, one of the study’s co-authors thinks so. Citing Carol Dweck’s work, she argues that “praising a child for being smart can undermine their motivation to achieve.” But even she admits that it’s a difficult thing to do. She goes on to state that in order to do change our behavior we need to “train ourselves to focus on other things, and in turn get children to focus on things that are more adaptive for their motivation and help them better deal with the difficulties that inevitably come as they're learning harder and harder skills." This is something we think about every day at NCRC.

Dr. Valaida Wise

Head of School

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