16 January 2011

Mindset and Praise

The work of Carol S. Dweck has become one of the most influential theories I have come across over the last few years. Her two books, Mindset and the more academic, Self-Theories, from the Essays in Social Psychology series have had a significant impact on the way I think about education and my classroom practice. This is the first of a few posts dealing with this theory.

Dweck proposes that students (and people in general) hold one of two theories about their intelligence: either that it is fixed or changeable.

Some people believe that their intelligence is a fixed trait. They have certain amount of it and that’s that. We call this an “entity theory” of intelligence because intelligence is portrayed as an entity that dwells within us and that we can’t change. (Self Theories, p. 2.)

Other people have a very different definition of intelligence. For them intelligence is not a fixed trait that they simply possess, but something they can cultivate through learning. We call this an “incremental theory” of intelligence because intelligence is portrayed as something that can be increased through one’s efforts. (Self Theories, p. 3.)

In Mindset, she calls these theories the fixed mindset or the growth mindset. I can’t do justice to the theory on this blog, but I recommend educators read one or both books. Whether you agree or not with the theory, it is thought-provoking reading. In light of recent brain research and other books such as The Brain That Changes Itself, Dweck’s theory cannot be ignored.
Let’s look at Praise.
Dweck’s studies show that effort and strategy praise is more effective in encouraging a mastery oriented response in students. Intelligence or person praise can encourage a helpless response.
Thus, in my comments (whether verbal or written) I always try to be specific about aspects of students’ written submissions. I try to avoid general comments such as ‘this is good work’, ‘great work’ or ‘excellent work’, instead identifying the actual features which are good. This might include comments about vocabulary, particular sentence structures or variation, plot, strength of argument, innovation, creativity, quality of examples, etc. By being detailed and explicit with praise, it also allows me to offer criticism which is precise and definite. Thus students can rework the elements of the draft which have been identified as needing attention.
In verbal responses (in class teaching/learning), Dweck discusses how praise can become a conversation and I have been practising this with my classes recently. The teacher can ask the student how an idea evolved, or what strategies the student used to arrive at the answer and praise the actual thinking which occurred in the process of developing a response. In this way, the teacher is encouraging the student who offered the interesting response and alerting all students to strategies they might like to try. It is a great way to be explicit about metacognition.
Effort and strategy praise generally stems from, and contributes to, an incremental theory of intelligence which encourages a mastery oriented approach. Those with this approach continue to strive for improvement even when they get something wrong or fail at a task. Thus, they are motivated to learn, rather than motivated to prove they are correct. 

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