As a psychologist at Stanford, Carol Dweck has researched the concept of “Why Some People Learn Faster” than others. She specifically focuses on the “half-second” after we make a mistake, and what feedback can do to improve learning from these mistakes:
In her own research, Dweck has shown that these mindsets have important practical implications. Her most famous study, conducted in twelve different New York City schools along with Claudia Mueller, involved giving more than 400 fifth graders a relatively easy test consisting of nonverbal puzzles. After the children finished the test, the researchers told the students their score, and provided them with a single line of praise. Half of the kids were praised for their intelligence. “You must be smart at this,” the researcher said. The other students were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.”
The students were then allowed to choose between two different subsequent tests. The first choice was described as a more difficult set of puzzles, but the kids were told that they’d learn a lot from attempting it. The other option was an easy test, similar to the test they’d just taken.
When Dweck was designing the experiment, she expected the different forms of praise to have a rather modest effect. After all, it was just one sentence. But it soon became clear that the type of compliment given to the fifth graders dramatically affected their choice of tests. When kids were praised for their effort, nearly 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. However, when kids were praised for their intelligence, most of them went for the easier test. What explains this difference? According to Dweck, praising kids for intelligence encourages them to “look” smart, which means that they shouldn’t risk making a mistake.
This is fascinating, especially in terms of how we label students as “gifted” at such a young age. This research demonstrates that telling kids they are smart might inhibit their actual learning. In further studies Dweck also discovered that students who were told they were smart actually did worse on the same type of test!
We need to rethink gifted programs, and how we positively reinforce from a young age. If students learn that mistakes are “how they learn”, it won’t be a bad thing to fail, it will be seen as an opportunity to move forward.