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Never Tell Your Kids They're Smart

Jan 10, 2008
So math wasn't my best subject. Alright, it was my worst subject. I'm more of a language person, really. Considering my father taught statistics at the local university, and that everyone in my tiny town knew him, it was rather embarrassing. "Hey, aren't you supposed to be good at this," my friends would ask when they got stuck on a math homework problem. "Don't come crawling to me when you need a paper edited," I'd snap back.

I learned quickly that we might all have different talents, but that it was hard to focus on the ones I was good at with a big fat "F" on my report card. On many days, I simply gave up. "Why wasn't I good at this," I wondered. "I must not be as smart as everyone thinks."

I was beyond needing simple math help. I needed algebra help. I needed geometry help. I even needed calculus help by the time I hit the hard college preparatory courses. Dad was a great math tutor, of course, but sometimes I wondered if what I really needed was guidance from a neutral party. I couldn't yell at hired tutors because they would, undoubtedly, walk out on me, and, sure, I could shriek, scream and be otherwise completely irrational in front of an online tutoring system, but computers simply didn't care.

Those algebraic equations still stared back blankly from the screen, demanding to be answered. I could vent my frustrations onto Dad like the temperamental, adolescent, hormone-breathing dragon I was because I knew he would forgive me. But, in the end, getting carried away with such vexations didn't do any good; I still had to get my homework done, and I still needed to get it right. Exasperation that exponentialized faster than answers to word-problems-gone-wrong just took time I didn't have - not with everything else a busy, if reluctant, high school student needed to do.

According to a 1994 report by James D. Wiggins, published in School Counselor, the "School Form of the Self-Esteem Inventory scores were more predicative of grades than were composite score[s] on [a] standardized test." In other words, self-esteem was a better indicator of grades than the types of standardized tests believed to indicate academic success. Wiggins only studied fifth- and sixth-graders in one school, but it was an intriguing report nonetheless. It indicated what many of us know intuitively, or as most loving parents could tell all the academic experts that have spent years figuring it out: It's amazing what self-image can do to grades - or visa versa.

While this may be true on its most basic level, successfully building children's (or any of our) self-esteems is not so simple. It turns out my reaction to, "Aren't you supposed to be good at this?" and my subsequent failure to prove "how smart" I really was perfectly (eerily) demonstrated the results of recent studies on children's academic performance in relationship to the kind of praise they receive.

According to Carol Dweck's research at Columbia University (who is now at Stanford), the type of praise given to a child dramatically affects his or her self-image and achievement levels.

Dweck's team studied the effects of a series of experiments on 400 New York City fifth-graders in which the children were either praised based on their intelligence or on their effort after completing nonverbal puzzles. In the end, it was the kids who believed they worked hard, versus those who simply thought their scores were the result of innate intelligence, that scored significantly higher on later tests. They also expended considerably more effort on the puzzles Dweck's team administered. In fact, many in the "You must have worked really hard" group said they actually enjoyed the most difficult tests - tests they were never expected to do well in - while many in the "You must be smart at this" group simply gave up.

"Emphasizing effort gives [children] a variable they can control. They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child's control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to failure," Dweck explained. This proved true for every socioeconomic class, both genders (though the most intelligent girls were the most dramatically effected), and very young children.

These results were repeated by Dweck's protage, Lisa Blackwell, and published this February in the academic journal, Child Development. Blackwell divided the 700 children in the East Harlem magnet school, Life Sciences Secondary School, into two groups. Each group participated in an eight-session workshop; the control group was taught proven study skills, while the variable group was instructed not only in those same study skills, but also participated in modules demonstrating intelligence was not purely innate.

This latter group of students, taught that new neurons were developed in the brain by challenging it, improved their grades and study habits. In fact, many of the educators at the school claimed they could spot this group without being informed who they were, so dramatic was the difference from the "control" students. A single semester exposed to Blackwell and Dweck's techniques reversed what had been a long-standing trend among these children.

Blackwell and Dweck's key tenets are that praise, self-esteem, and performance rise and fall together - but that the type of praise one receives is of great significance. Those with innate intelligence may have stronger abilities, but those abilities mean nothing unless one is willing to work hard enough to push through challenges.

Children made to believe it is their effort that produces good results tend to score higher, according to Dweck, because they believe they have the power to control results through their own actions. Kids who simply believe it's their intelligence that gets them through become confused and frustrated when not everything comes so easily. They may feel powerless to improve the situation and do what most any of us would in that situation: they give up.

Devoid of good study habits, none of this means much, of course. I had to learn how to study, not just the material itself. Without realizing it, I guess I proved Dweck - and for that matter, every old farmer I grew up with -- right a decade before she began experimenting.

All the good sense in the world doesn't make up for hard-earned, honest sweat.
About the Author
Math Made Easy provides Math help for Algebra help, Geometry help, math homework help using math online tutorial services and math tutorial cd so you can watch your math scores soar.
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