I’m reading Carol Dweck’s brilliant book: Self Theories. All teachers, parents and in fact human beings should read this book. What I like about it most is that it’s rooted in research and reveals some very profound truths about how we view ourselves and others and where these ideas take us in life.
In the current climate of education, where evidence based decision making is now firmly on the table, instead of whims or hunches, teachers should by now understand the difference between mastery and performance orientations and how pupil’s feelings about themselves really impact their learning. Certainly, staff meetings are now populated with growth mind set power points and smart ideas on how to deliver feedback that moves kids on with next steps, rather than summatively judging them, leaving them feeling ‘bright’ because they got a smiley face, lots of ticks or a high grades, or ‘thick’ because they got lots of red, or a low grade. This is a great thing. At last kids are getting feedback that is really feedback and causes them to think and look forward. Finally, education seems to be much more Stars Wars (master the force within you my son) rather than Gladiator (win or die). However, what about the backdrop to all this? What about all that time children spend at home with their families and those deep, formative years spent in the bosom of home before our pupils came to us. We might get so much right in schools, but how much is undone the minute they leave the gates? If feedback counts so much, what about the feedback children get from those that matter to them most?
According to Carol Dweck, and also what I understand of Prof. Charles Desforge’s work too, the influence of parental attitudes to their children’s own success or failures really does set them up for life and hands schools anything but blank canvases. Evidence suggests that how parents not only criticise, but also praise their children can create vulnerability and a default to helplessness when they encounter difficulties with learning at school. Carol Dweck’s studies into this are comprehensive. Her findings run contrary to every instinct a parent has to praise every pore of their children in the hope that this fosters concrete self esteem and resilience to everything that life will throw at them. (I know, because I have been utterly guilty of this myself.) However, this instinctive urge to shower our children with admiration for who they are may actually make our children venerable to fixed and limiting ideas about themselves so that when they hit setbacks in life, and in school, they react negatively with helplessness and feeling of plummeting self worth.
According to Dweck, this is because many parents praise their children in a way that confirms children’s feeling of either being ‘good’ and or ‘bad’. This is because often praise can be directed at the traits of the child, who they are, rather than the things they are doing and the effort they put into things. Like this, comments such as ‘good boy, well done’ or ‘clever girl’ are global praise which praise the whole person and not the effort or the strategy. This kind of praise makes children feel temporarily very good about themselves, and even has temporary positive effects on their self esteem and self worth. Children love feeling like ‘good’ children don’t they. However, this doesn’t last. When children who often receive this kind of ‘whole person’ praise meet failure, mistakes or struggle with something, then the only alternative feeling is to feel negative about themselves and helpless, because then they aren’t ‘good’ any more. This isn’t simply an idea either; this has been evidenced in the studies Dweck has carried out with children and learners of all ages.
The good news is that children who were used to praise aimed at their strategies and effort, rather than them as a person, meet failure or mistakes with a very different approach. These children approach problems with a mastery orientation, seeing hurdles as challenges that can be overcome if they get the right strategies and put in the right amount of effort. Like Dylan Wiliam says, ‘children aren’t born smart, they get smart!’
As teachers we should certainly know this and our feedback and praise of children should be aimed at their strategies and effort so that we foster this mastery approach to learning – this is all well and good. However, should we not as a profession be ensuring this vital piece of research be shared with parents everywhere? Some parents naturally praise or admonish their children in the mastery way, probably because they were treated that way themselves, but many parents don’t. Many parents pour global, whole person praise down on their children at every opportunity because they feel it’s the right thing to do. It feels so right to say, ‘well done, what a clever boy you are,’ rather than ‘well done, you put a lot of effort into that. I like the way you did that’. Who would think about the detail between these two ways of praising? Who would think it mattered? Why would they know the profound difference between these two kinds of praise unless they had read Dweck, or had some background in psychology?
It’s the same with admonishing a child too. All too often the whole child is left feeling bad, rather than understanding the problem as behaviour based and changeable. There is a huge difference between, ‘that was a really unkind thing to do’ and ‘you are a very unkind little boy’. Again, who would have thought? Yet it’s the drip, drip, drip of these kinds of praise and reprimands that send children the messages of being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ creating fixed ideas about themselves as people. The point is that when a child carries this concrete ‘goody’ or ‘bady’ feeling about themselves then behaviour, strategy and effort don’t really mean very much, because you just are who you are aren’t you? Think about the ‘good’ boy or girl in your class and the one time you gave them a mild telling off for something small. They were in bits all afternoon, sobbing all over? It’s because they had a concrete idea about themselves as perfect and good and the telling off then meant they weren’t who they thought they were. If they’d innately understood the difference between who they are and their behaviour, it wouldn’t have been half as bad.
Of course I have barely touched on Dweck’s research and surely haven’t done it justice here. Her research on the repercussions of fixed ideas of intelligence really are ground breaking and deserve much focus in education. But for now, I really hope the message of the importance of how we talk to children will reach the ears of all parents. All the ones I meet have the best interests of their children at heart; whatever they do, they want to benefit their children, but sometimes our caring instincts aren’t always right. Sometimes, we do things that can make our children weaker and if we knew it, we’d never do it. It’s hard being a parent; no one is perfect, but the way we speak to children is a great place to start. We should also think about how we adults think and talk about ourselves and other adults in fixed ways too; Dweck’s research on the myth of the first impression is very profound, but that’s for another time. For now however, strategy and effort will get you everywhere. Fixed ideas will leave you stuck.
May the Force be with you!