An interview with Carol Dweck: How teachers can encourage their students to become more motivated and successful
Gary Hopkins: Some students see intelligence as a fixed characteristic; it is a quality that people are born with and little can be done to change it. Others hold a more changeable view of intelligence; they think most anyone can learn new things and ‘stretch’ their intelligence. Clearly, it seems that students with a changeable view of intelligence might fare better when faced with a learning challenge. But can anything be done to change those students who have a fixed view of their intelligence so that they might do better when facing a challenging learning task?
Carol Dweck: You’re right. Students who believe that intelligence is a potential that they can develop do fare better when faced with challenge. For example, they often blossom across a challenging school transition when their fellow students with the fixed view are busy doubting themselves and losing their edge.
We have found with students of all ages - from early grade school through college - that the changeable view can be taught. Students can be taught that their intellectual skills are things that can be cultivated - through their hard work, reading, education, confronting of challenges, etc. When they are taught this, they seem naturally to become more eager for challenges, harder working, and more able to cope with obstacles. Researchers (for example, Joshua Aronson of the University of Texas) have even shown that college students’ grade point averages go up when they are taught that intelligence can be developed.
It is interesting to me that these beliefs about intelligence seem to be fairly stable individual differences when left to themselves. But they also can be changed fairly readily when students are confronted with the alternative view in an explicit and compelling way.
In your research, have you seen a distinct correlation between a student’s history of success and his or her ability to face future challenges?
Carol Dweck: This is really fascinating. You might expect a correlation between a history of success and the ability to face challenges. You might think that students who had a history of success would be the ones who loved challenges and had the ability to face them constructively. After all, shouldn’t past successes boost their confidence in their abilities and give them what it takes to confront difficulty?
But in fact, there is no relation between a history of success and seeking or coping with challenges. This is one of the great surprises in my research, and it goes to show that the ability to face challenges is not about your actual skills; it’s about the mindset you bring to a challenge.
Some students, even some very successful ones, feel threatened by challenge, believe that mistakes mean you’re not smart, and wilt when things become difficult. They stop enjoying the task, and they stop doing well on it. Other students, even many who have not done particularly well in an area, love challenge. They see it as an opportunity to learn, they view mistakes as valuable information, and they really rev up when things get difficult.
Most educators want to help students see themselves as ‘smart.’ They praise students’ intelligence because they believe that helping them feel smart will help them achieve their potential. But are there different or better messages educators could be sending them?
Carol Dweck: I was aware of the widespread belief that praising students’ intelligence would help them feel smart and fulfill their potential. Yet, I had years of research showing that students who were vulnerable (who had fragile self-esteem and motivation) were the ones who were obsessed with their intelligence. They worried about it all the time: Will this task make me look smart? Will that task show I’m dumb? So it struck us that praising intelligence could actually do harm by putting the spotlight on intelligence and conveying to students that this important quality can be measured from their performance.
We set out to test this in our research. Claudia Mueller and I conducted six studies, all with powerful results. In these studies, later grade school students worked on a task, succeeded nicely on the first set of problems, and received praise. Some received praise for their intelligence, and others received praise for their effort. It turned out that praising students’ intelligence, even after truly admirable performance, made them feel good in the short run, but it had many, many negative effects. In contrast, praising students’ effort had many positive effects.
First, when students were praised for their intelligence, they became so invested in looking smart that they became afraid of challenge. Most of them preferred a sure-fire success over a challenging opportunity to learn something important. When students were praised for their effort, 90 percent of them wanted the challenging learning opportunity.
Second, when students then experienced a second, difficult set of problems, those who had been praised for their intelligence now told us they felt dumb. In other words, if the success meant they were smart, the failure meant to them that they were dumb. Any self-esteem that had been promoted by the praise was very, very fragile.
In contrast, the students who had been praised for their effort saw the setback not as a condemnation of their intellect, but as simply a signal for more effort. They realized that a harder task means harder work.
Third, the students who were praised for their intelligence told us that they no longer enjoyed the task, and no longer wished to take problems home to practice. A feeling of failure made them turn away from a chance to practice their skills and improve. In contrast, the ones who were praised for their effort enjoyed the task just as much as before and were just as eager to take problems home to practice. In fact, some of them liked the task even better when it got hard and were more determined to master it.
Fourth, we gave the students a third set of problems, similar to the first set (the one on which they had succeeded). How did they do on these problems? The students who were praised for their intelligence now did significantly worse than they had initially, whereas the students who were praised for their effort did significantly better than they had done before. This means that two groups of students, who had started off with similar performance, were now very far apart.
And finally, when given a chance to write to a student in another school about the task, 40 percent of the students who received intelligence praise lied about their score. They revised it upward. Very few effort-praised students did so. This suggests that when students are praised for their intelligence, they become so over-identified with their performance, so personally humiliated by setbacks, that they can’t tell the truth even to an anonymous peer they will never meet.
In short, intelligence praise made students feel good in the moment, but it made them afraid of challenge and unable to cope with setbacks. Effort praise seemed to give students a more hardy sense of themselves as learners, a more healthy desire for challenge, and the skills to cope effectively with setbacks.
What does this mean? Does it mean we shouldn’t praise out students? By no means. We should praise all we want to, but we should praise the right things. We should praise the process (the effort, the strategies, the ideas, what went into the work), not the person.
If praising for intelligence can be a negative thing, what about labeling kids as ‘gifted’? Could that do more harm than good?
Carol Dweck: Labeling kids as gifted can sometimes do more harm than good. The label ‘gifted’ implies that you have received some magical quality (the gift) that makes you special and more worthy than others. Some students are in danger of getting hung up on this label. They may become so concerned with deserving the label and so worried about losing it that they may lose their love of challenge and learning. They may begin to prefer only things they can do easily and perfectly, thus limiting their intellectual growth.
Psychologists who study creative geniuses point out that the single most important factor in creative achievement is willingness to put in tremendous amounts of effort and to sustain this effort in the face of obstacles. It would be a tragedy if by labeling students as gifted, we limited their creative contributions.
However, we can prevent this by making clear to students that ‘gifted’ simply means that if they work hard and keep on learning and stretching themselves, they will be capable of noteworthy accomplishments. Of course, that is true of many, many people.
Is self-esteem something that teachers can or
should ‘give’ to students?
For the most part, self-esteem is not something teachers can hand to students. Many teachers believe that if they praise students’ intelligence, they can give their students high self-esteem. My work shows this is not true. I certainly think it is important for teachers to show students respect and give them a sense they are cared for, but apart from that, the best thing teachers can do for students is to put them in charge of their own self-esteem. This is by teaching students how to love challenges and learning and how to cope with and capitalize on setbacks.
When students learn to thrive on difficulty and get a charge from mastering new skills, they can boost their own self-esteem in constructive ways throughout their lives.
In all your years of research, what findings have intrigued you the most?
Carol Dweck: What has intrigued me most in my 30 years of research is the power of motivation. Motivation is often more important than your initial ability in determining whether you succeed in the long run. In fact many creative geniuses were not born that way. They were often fairly ordinary people who became extraordinarily motivated.
By motivation, I mean not only the desire to achieve but also the love of learning, the love of challenge, and the ability to thrive on obstacles. These are the greatest gifts we can give our students.
The interview, by Gary Hopkins, was published in Education World, a free and independent resource for teachers, administrators and school staff.