Discovering How to Learn Smarter

| February 2, 2012 | 6 Comments
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By Annie Murphy Paul

It’s not often that a story about the brain warms the heart. But that’s exactly what happened to me when I read an article last month in the Washington Post. It’s about how teachers in many schools in the D.C. area are foregoing empty praise of the “Good job!” variety, in favor of giving students solid information that will do them some real good. That information concerns how their brains work and how their intelligence and skills develop, and it’s knowledge that should be made available to every child in the country.

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck conducted the groundbreaking research showing that praise intended to raise young people’s self-esteem can seriously backfire. When we tell children, “You’re so smart,” we communicate the message that they’d better not take risks or make mistakes, lest they reveal that they’re not so smart after all. Dweck calls this cautious attitude the “fixed mindset,” and she’s found that it’s associated with greater anxiety and reduced achievement. Students with a “growth mindset,” on the other hand, believe that intelligence can be expanded with hard work and persistence, and they view challenges as invigorating and even fun. They’re more resilient in the face of setbacks, and they do better academically.

Now Dweck has designed a program, called Brainology, which aims to help students develop a growth mindset. Its website explains: “Brainology makes this happen by teaching students how the brain functions, learns, and remembers, and how it changes in a physical way when we exercise it. Brainology shows students that they are in control of their brain and its development.” That’s a crucial message to pass on to children, and it’s not just empty words of encouragement—it’s supported by cutting-edge research on neuroplasticity, which shows that the brain changes and grows when we learn new things. You, and your child, can learn to be smarter.

That, in fact, is something like the credo of this column, which will be appearing every week on MindShift. Each week, I’ll share the latest findings from neuroscience, cognitive science and psychology—discoveries that help us understand how we learn and how we can do it better. I hope you’ll join me here, and share what you read with others. We’ll be doing out part to spread a growth mindset, one click at a time.

Annie Murphy Paul, the author of Origins, is at work on a book about the science of learning.

 

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  • http://www.learningstewards.org/ David Boulton

    The case against ‘pumping up’ self-esteem is well established (Baumeister 98, Begely 03). There is a difference though between self-esteem as a kind of accumulated positivity and self-esteem as a buoyant absence of self-negativity. Of the two major domains of unhealthy learning, maladaptive cognitive schema and unconscious emotional aversions, the later, and in particular ‘mind-shame’, is largely the result of learned self-disesteem. Rather than getting lost in trying to pump up the positive, it’s long been clear we need to create environments that minimize our learning to be self-disesteeming. Kids feel and know the difference between praise that soothes their surface and feedback that confirms they’re right.

    There is also a difference between learning about the brain as you would a ‘thing’ in the world and learning about learning as the central dynamic of yourself. Learning, first-person, about how to extend your participation in your own learning in a more subjectively learning oriented way is entirely different than learning about your brain. No question, all that we are learning about the brain as a processor is very helpful. But there is no substitute for first-person learning about learning from the inside-out.  In that sense, we all live inside the most powerful learning environment imaginable.

  • Anonymous

    Great points

    neuroscience, cognitive science and psychology—discoveries that help us understand how we learn and how we can do it better 
    ——————————————————

    -Now Dweck has designed a program, called Brainology, which aims to help students develop a growth mindset.

    – When we tell children, “You’re so smart,” we communicate the message that they’d better not take risks or make mistakes, lest they reveal that they’re not so smart after all. Dweck calls this cautious attitude the “fixed mindset,” and she’s found that it’s associated with greater anxiety and reduced achievement.
    –  Students with a “growth mindset,” on the other hand, believe that intelligence can be expanded with hard work and persistence, and they view challenges as invigorating and even fun. They’re more resilient in the face of setbacks, and they do better academically. 

    – it’s supported by cutting-edge research on neuroplasticity, which shows that the brain changes and grows when we learn new things. You, and your child, can learn to be smarter.

  • Reader

    I am bothered by the sweeping statement that by telling a child that he or she  is smart that we are ‘hurting’ them. I know that many teachers utilize concepts of ‘training the brain” and use comments like that to indicate that a child is using his/her thinking skills. NOT demeaning them or their self-esteem.

  • http://www.totthoughts.com/ Karla

    I agree with many of the comments below and would like to add that there is a difference between framing praise directed at children in terms of who they are vs. the choices and actions they’ve made. 

    The “harm” that arises when we tell a child “you are smart” is that we are making a qualifying statement about their identity. Compare that to “you made a smart choice.” In the latter instance, we are praising their ability to make choices, not who they are as people. 

    Praise that is tied to one’s identity is a burden insofar as it makes us feel like we have failed as a person if we are unable to continue meeting that praise (particularly when it is about something that is out of our control or we cannot change). I would argue that this is the leading cause for children’s low self-esteem or feelings of disempowerment.

    On the other hand, when praise is tied to one’s choices or actions, our identity and self-esteem are not compromised. Moreover, as choices and actions are generally things that can change, children can still feel empowered to make the right choices despite not being praised (some additional thoughts on praise: http://bit.ly/esrcy8). This obviously begs the question, “what are the right choices?” But that’s a topic for another forum.

    To be clear, while I am an advocate of praise and think it plays a significant and necessary role in child-rearing, I also think empty praise or praise without substance can give the wrong message to children. With that in mind, I completely agree with he point above on the importance of supplementing praise with constructive feedback.

    – Karla (www.totthoughts.com)

    • http://twitter.com/evelynjm Evelyn Molina

      As a mother with a child with special needs. One of the goals on her Educational Profile was giving her constant “praise” by the teachers. Boy what a difference that made! My daughter made a 180 degree turn. This was a little girl who would never raise her hand and speak in a very low tone. I strongly believe that it was because she felt insecure about her responses or that maybe she was not smart enough. It’s been a year and not only did she meet her educational goals, but socially she is a different child. I truly believe in giving praise no matter how small the achievement. She made the honor roll 2 semesters in a row. As an educator, we must identify what will trigger that child to learn, for my daughter it was praise and knowing that she was able to do it.

  • LoriAnne

    Great post and thanks for redirecting us to her new
    site!   Not only can we change our
    mindset, but that we can be half growth and half fixed and it depends on the
    task at hand.  Understanding motivation
    and task avoidance are critical to educators. 
    The communication of critical feedback pushes development.  Constructive feedback fuels growth.  Assigned grades feed the fixed mindset.  In what ways can technology assist teachers
    in providing quality, constructive feedback to their students?   Many tech platforms and applications allow
    teachers to facilitate that communication more efficiently and effectively than
    ever before. Making those changes and incorporating quality feedback seems less
    of a punishment when it can happen quickly in a tech savvy environment.  High school students need to view growth
    areas, not as weaknesses, but the ones with the most potential.