Visit to Clarendon by Professor Carol Dweck of Stanford University
Staff members are committed to keeping abreast of current educational ideas, thinking and research, and the visit of Professor Dweck to the University of Melbourne as a visiting scholar, and to Ballarat, generated considerable interest.
Teaching staff have been reading and discussing Professor Dweck’s recent book Self Theories, Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development. Her work is built around the idea “that people develop beliefs that organise their world and give meaning to their experiences” and that “people’s beliefs about themselves can create different psychological worlds, leading them to think, feel, and act differently in identical situations.”
We, as parents and teachers, play a critical role in shaping the beliefs that young people hold. We need to be aware, also, that these beliefs are open to change. Professor Dweck’s research has demonstrated that ability, success, intelligence, praise and confidence do not make students value effort, or seek challenges, or persist effectively in the face of obstacles. In fact, they may often have the opposite effect. She writes, “I am not suggesting that failure and criticism are more beneficial than success and praise. Nor am I arguing that a feeling of confidence isn’t a good thing to have, but I will argue it is not the heart of motivation or the key to achievement.”
Professor Dweck’s research challenges several beliefs that are common in society. One such belief is that praise, particularly praising a student’s intelligence, encourages mastery-oriented qualities. It is common practice for children to be praised for their intelligence or how smart they are. “The hope is that such praise will instil confidence and, thereby, promote a host of desirable qualities.” In fact, this type of praise can lead students to fear failure, avoid risks, doubt themselves when they fail, and cope poorly with setbacks.
Some people believe that intelligence is a fixed trait; that we have a fixed amount of intelligence. Students who hold this theory will readily pass up valuable learning opportunities if these might reveal inadequacies and they will disengage from tasks that pose obstacles. We encourage vulnerabilities when we try to boost self-esteem with this system.
Other people do not believe intelligence is fixed, but something that can grow through learning, and that everyone, with effort and support, can increase their intellectual abilities. Students with an incremental theory thrive on challenge and will demonstrate persistence, even if they have low confidence. Effort and learning make incremental students feel good about their intelligence. Easy tasks waste their time rather than raise their self-esteem. “Self-esteem is not an internal quantity that is fed by easy success and diminished by failures. It is a positive way of experiencing yourself when you are fully engaged and are using your abilities to the utmost in pursuit of something you value.”
So what should we praise?
We should look for opportunities to praise activities and attitudes that require effort and struggle: trying new strategies and approaches that require persistence, despite setbacks; choosing difficult tasks; and learning and improving. It is not just about praising; it is about appreciating, and about keeping the outcome as the child’s own product.