Educators educating Educators

May 26

Smart vs. Effort

Carol Dweck: The Power (and Peril) of Praising Your Child

Want to raise a confident child and a high achieving child? Then avoid praising your child’s intelligence and telling them how smart they are and instead praise the effort they put forth in completing an assignment or a task.

How can over three-fourth of parents be wrong in believing that praising their child’s intelligence and innate intelligence is the key to a successful education? According to a survey conducted by Columbia University, 85% of American parents think it’s important to tell their children that they’re smart. But research from the New York City public school system strongly suggests it might be the other way around. Giving children the label “smart” does not prevent them from underperforming. It might actually be causing it.

Carol Dweck and her team at Columbia University (she’s now at Stanford) studied the effect of praise on students in a dozen New York City schools and her seminal work paints a clear picture.

Her research found one of the critical ingredients of a successful education is the ability of students to learn from mistakes. Unfortunately, children are often taught the exact opposite. Instead of praising children for trying hard, teachers typically praise them for their innate intelligence - being smart. Dweck has shown that this type of encouragement actually backfires, since it leads students to see mistakes as signs of stupidity and not as building blocks of knowledge. The regrettable outcome is that children never learn how to learn.

Dweck sent four female researchers into more than 400 New York City fifth-grade classrooms. The researchers would take a child out of the classroom for a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of puzzles – puzzles easy enough that all children would do fairly well. Once the child finished the tests, the researchers told each student their score, then gave them a single line of praise. Randomly divided into groups, some were praised for their intelligence. They were told, “You must be really smart at this.” Other students were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.”

Why the single line of praise? ‘We wanted to see how sensitive children were,” Dweck explained. “We had a hunch that one line might be enough to see an effect.”

Then the students were given a choice for the second test, a hard or easy one. One choice was a test that would be more difficult than the first, but the researchers told the children that they’d learn a lot from attempting the puzzles. The other choice, Dweck’s team explained, was an easy test, just like the first one.

It soon became clear that the type of compliment given to the fifth-graders dramatically influenced their choice of test. Of the group praised for their efforts, 90% chose the harder set of puzzles. However, of the children praised for their intelligence, most went for the easier test. The “smart” kids took the cop-out.

Why did this happen? “When we praise children for their intelligence,’ Dweck wrote in her summary, “we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.” And that’s what the fifth-graders had done: They chose the test to avoid the risk of being embarrassed.

Her next set of tests showed how this fear of failure actually inhibited learning. In this round of testing, none of the 5th-grade students had a choice and were given a much more difficult test designed for 8th-graders. Predictably, everyone failed. But again, the two groups of children, divided at random at the study’s start, responded differently.

The students who were praised for their efforts in the initial test worked hard to solve the puzzles. They assumed they simply hadn’t focused hard enough on this test. “They got involved, willing to try every solution to the puzzles,” Dweck recalled. “Many of them remarked, unprovoked, ‘This is my favorite test.’”

Not so for those praised for their smarts. Children praised for their smarts, on the other hand, were easily discouraged. Their inevitable mistakes were seen as signs of failure: they assumed their failure was evidence that they weren’t really smart at all. “Just watching them, you could see the strain. They were sweating and miserable,” Dweck wrote in her study summary.

“Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control,” she explains. “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.”

In follow-up interviews, Dweck discovered that those who think that innate intelligence is the key to success begin to discount the importance of effort. I am smart, the kids’ reasoning goes; I don’t need to put out effort.

In repeated experiments, Dweck found that this inverse effect of praise on performance held true for students of every socioeconomic class and both boys and girls (especially the very brightest girls who collapsed the most following failure), and even preschoolers.

In 1969, Nathaniel Branden published The Psychology of Self-Esteem in which he opined that self-esteem was the single most important factor of a person and that anything potentially damaging to the child’s self-esteem must be removed. Partly as a result of his work, competition was frowned upon. Soccer coaches stopped counting goals and began handing out trophies to everyone. Teachers threw out their red pencils. Criticism was replaced with ubiquitous, even underserved, praise.

From 1970 to 2000, there were over 15,000 scholarly articles written on self-esteem and its relationship to everything – from sex to career advancement. But results were often contradictory or inconclusive. In 2003, the Association for Psychological Science asked Dr. Roy Baumeister, then a leading proponent of self-esteem, to review the literature. His team concluded that self-esteem was polluted with flawed science. Only 200 of those 15,000 articles met their rigorous standards.

After reviewing those 200 studies, Baumeister concluded that having high self-esteem didn’t improve grades or result in career advancement. At the time, Baumeister was quoted as saying that his findings were “the biggest disappointment of my career.”

Now on Dweck’s side, he published an article showing that college students on the verge of failing in class, esteem-building praise cause their grades to sink further. Baumeister has come to believe the continued appeal of self-esteem is largely tied to parents’ pride in their child’s achievements. It’s is so strong that “when they praise their kids, it’s not that far from praising themselves.”

Looking at the big picture, the literature shows that praise can be effective and a positive, motivating force. But all praise is not equal and the effects of praise can vary significantly depending on the praise given. Haim Ginott, legendary child-care expert advances that, “praise consists of two parts. What we say to the child, and in turn, what the child says to himself.” To be effective, researchers have found praise needs to be specific.

Rich Lavoie, a noted educator, motivational speaker, and author, proposes in his book The Motivation Breakthrough that there is a mistaken belief that praise automatically builds self-esteem. He believes you cannot give anyone self-esteem, you can only create an environment where it can grow. Lavoie states that, “praise does not make perfect; only effective praise make perfect.”

Lavoie explains that praise and encouragement are not synonyms. Praise is conditional, granted in response to a child’s success and withheld in response to a child’s failure while encouragement is unconditional, a positive acknowledgment of a child’s effort or progress, and it can be given even when a task is a failure.

Below is a summary of the comparison between praise and encouragement which Lavoie explains in The Motivation Breakthrough.

While praise is a judgment, encouragement is acknowledgement. Similarly, praise is earned, while encouragement is a gift. Praise uses words that judge, encouragement uses words that notice.

Praise can be given only when the child is successful, encouragement can be given when the child is experiencing failure or frustration. Children react very differently to each.

Praise promotes competition by comparing one child to others, focuses on the child’s performance, and ignores his efforts and motives. The child feels he has been judged or evaluated based on how he performed in comparison to others. Praise fosters the child’s dependence upon the opinion of others.

Praise is not a panacea to enhance student motivation and progress. Praise in and of itself will not solve student’s motivation problems. However, praise can be of great assistance in creating an environment where motivation can flourish.

Praise is an invaluable tool as a motivational device and can be instrumental in building self-esteem, enhancing pride, fostering cooperation, building positive adult-child relationships. It is effective if delivered correctly, but counterproductive if used inappropriately. The impact and effect of praise will be greatly enhanced if used in conjunction with encouragement, interest, gratitude, and enthusiasm.

Encouragement fosters cooperation and collaboration and focuses on the child’s individual effort and progress. The child feels valued rather than evaluated. Encouragement recognizes a child’s individual contributions, promotes effort, and enables the child to accept setbacks, mistakes, and failures. The child becomes more independent and motivated. Encouragement underscores that learning is a process and improvement is always possible. Anyone can criticize but it takes a sensitive, compassionate, and creative person to encourage.

Encouragement may be more effective and motivating than praise. Praise works, but encouragement works better.

Ingredients of effective praise that help develop growth mind-sets: Use praise to recognize the positive feelings that accompany success, placing your emphasis on the process not the product. In addition, do not use phony praise, praise should be specific (provide specific examples that illustrate effort/progress, accompany praise with a description of the behavior you are praising, recognize realized expectations, and use to soften the blow of criticism (praise the 90% prior to pointing out the 10% incomplete).

Examples of Effective Praise that Encourages the Development of Growth Mind-Sets

“You really looked like you enjoyed that.”

“How did it feel to finish that task so successfully?”

“You really studied for your English test, and your improvement shows it. You read the material over several times, outlined it, and tested yourself on it. It really worked.”

“I liked the way you tried all kinds of strategies on that math problem until you finally got it.”

“It was a long, hard assignment, but you stuck to it and got it done. You stayed at your desk, kept up your concentration, and kept working. That’s great!”

“I like that you took on that challenging project for your science class. It will take a lot of work – doing the research, designing the machine, buying the parts, and building it. You’re going to learn a lot of great things.”

“I liked the effort you put in. Let’s work together some more and figure out what you don’t understand.” (Used for a student who works hard and doesn’t do well.) This praise method keeps students focused, not on something called ability that they may or may not have, but on processes that they can all engage in to learn.

“Bob, you completed every one of the addition problems in only ten minutes.”


Praising students' intelligence gives them a short burst of pride, followed by a long string of negative consequences. When a student fails a test who previously was told the reason for his success was his intelligence, he might assume that the reason is because he is not that smart. Conversely, a student who fails a test, and believes his success is due to the effort he puts forth, can assume he did poorly due to his lack of test preparation.

Praise is intricately linked to how students view their intelligence. Some students believe that their intellectual ability is a fixed trait. They have a certain amount of intelligence, and that’s that. They become excessively concerned with how smart they are, seeking tasks that will prove their intelligence and avoiding ones that might not. The desire to learn takes a backseat.

Other students believe that their intellectual ability is something they can develop through effort and education. When students believe they can develop their intelligence, they focus on doing just that. Not worrying about how smart they will appear, they take on challenges and stick to them.


Read April's Ed Tip to understand how using video game design principles will improve instruction.  Moreover, educators should not view video games as the enemy of education, but rather a model for best teaching practices. When educators design instructional strategies, they must keep in mind the principles of video games, namely achievable challenge, and the role of dopamine in education.