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The Inadvertent Consequences of Praising Good

Wednesday, February 8, 2017  
Posted by: Christina Mimms
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The Inadvertent Consequences of Praising “Good:” The Intersectionality of Student Experience and the Growth Mindset


By Wade A. Hanse, Elementary Science Teacher, St. Martin’s Episcopal School, Atlanta


If you work long enough in education, sooner or later you have the privilege of working with a student who seems to profoundly enjoy the activity of learning. This student is often eager to test their abilities, and appears driven even when encumbered by difficulty or confusion.  Unfortunately, the opposite also exists: students, who, when challenged to think or act beyond their personally perceived ability, immediately shut down, dig in their heels, and convince themselves they are incapable of “doing it.” What causes this dualistic contradiction in student response?     

Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck’s early research was motivated by her personal observations of children and dealt with students’ radically different responses to frustrating situations. Dweck describes her primary fascination with student resiliency as, “an obsession.” From this early research, Dweck and colleagues developed the self-theories of intelligence, a concept she later extended across other ability domains and changed to simply the growth mindset. Growth mindset refers to an individual’s belief that through hard work and perseverance, he or she can improve their faculty within a certain ability area.

An individual who believes in a fixed mindset endorses the idea that persons are born with a concrete allotment of ability, and they cannot change how much they have. Students who believe in a fixed mindset are manically concerned with how their performance is perceived by others. Often they will avoid academic challenges in favor of activities they can accomplish easily, because for them, to appear novice in the eyes of others is to fail. Students who hold a growth mindset embrace challenge and realize that through experiencing setbacks they are learning and subsequently growing their capabilities. If a growth mindset offers an enticing combination of autogenous control and self-improvement, why do some students genuinely believe that their abilities are predetermined and static?

Perhaps the answer to the question above lies in how schools answer and reinforce the implications of a separate question asked by hopeful students in classrooms across the country, “Is this good?” One teacher may answer this question with a dismissive, “yes,” while another teacher thoughtfully inspects the curious student’s work and exclaims, “This is wonderful!” Even if sincere, both of these answers distort a student’s view of their ability and harm the ideals of a growth mindset. For some students, high grades seem to come easily. These students are often bombarded, either directly or indirectly, with statements such as, “you are such a good girl,” or “oh yeah, he is such an intelligent student!” These well-intended compliments are forms of ability praise that imply goodness and intelligence as inherent and fixed traits in students.

Studies indicate that from age 3, the type of praise received by children has a profound impact on their self-concept. When a student’s capacity for learning is distorted as an uncontrollable implicit ability, hard work becomes a sign of conclusive failure indicative of their competency boundaries. Thus in an effort to retain their façades of natural proficiency, students who feed off ability praise avoid situations that might not come naturally or require pious struggle at all costs. Sound familiar? In an attempt to discourage the atrophic effects of a fixed mindset and influence a culture of personal advancement in its schools, leaders, teachers, and students, SAIS has made the growth mindset a seminal consideration for all that it does.

Some independent schools offer students the unique opportunity to complete the entirety of their grade school education at the same institution. Adding complexity to this rare situation, simply through the application process, families can choose at any grade-level to enroll their child in a new school. On any given first day of school, a classroom teacher may warmly greet a student they have known for several years, or compassionately welcome a child they are meeting for the very first time. Both children come to the classroom with individually distinct experiences, ambitions, and anxieties. The relationships these students have or have not formed in their scholastic environment will undoubtedly play a significant role in sculpting their academic ideologies.

In a commitment to understand how the intricate experiences of the independent school environment affect student belief, buttressed in a conviction that all students have the potential to cultivate their abilities through assiduous effort, SAIS commissioned a research study analyzing attitudinal student data on the growth mindset. Student responses from the SAIS Value Narrative Survey for resiliency and intrinsic motivation (two attributes research shows are highly correlated to the growth mindset) were used to estimate student opinion of self-theories. Using this data, the study aimed to answer three main questions centered on the intersectionality of the growth mindset and student experience:

1) Does a student’s reported importance of the growth mindset change based on grade level?

2) Does a student’s opinion of his or her school’s promotion of the growth mindset change based on grade level?

3) Does a student’s duration of attendance affect their opinions of the importance or promotion of the growth mindset?

The analysis of research questions one and two involving the students of differing grade-levels uncovered no practical difference. That is, regardless of whether a student was in middle school or late into their high school experience, they all felt the concepts of a growth mindset were important and their school promoted them well. However, the third research question involving student opinion and their time of attendance, revealed mixed results. The in-depth analysis of the initial variances reported between duration of enrollment and how important students found the growth mindset affirmed positive results in-line with research questions one and two. Regardless of how long a student was enrolled at their current school, all groups found the growth mindset amply important. In contrast, the subsequent analysis of data cemented a substantial disparity between differing durations of attendance and how well students felt their school promoted the ideals of a growth mindset.

From middle school through high school, students in their first year of attendance rated their school the highest. This might be explained by considering the possibility of smaller class sizes, more individualized instruction, and the recency of the new environment. However, from the apex represented by the first-year students, ratings fell the longer students attended their school. Additionally, and alarmingly, students who attended their school for 10 years or more (the longest duration measured by the study), rated their school significantly lower than any other student population. Why did these students, seemingly most enculturated and invested in their academic institution, view their school’s promotion of the growth mindset the least favorably?

Along with the academic rigor, extracurricular clubs, and athletics, independent schools offer an intimate sense of community and belonging. Over time, teachers, administrators, staff, and parents connect deeply to form a communal support system transcending the measures of normal friendship. Enveloped in this close-knit network of relationships, it is easy to forget that the students are the nexus of this social-framework and over time become hyperaware of the dynamics. The negative ratings reported by the most tenured students in the SAIS research study resolutely reveal that within the tightly formed community of an independent school, the effects of ability praise are exacerbated. As reported by Dweck and others, even indirect praise to parents or teachers has the potential to shape community expectations which students, especially those most thoroughly imbued in the school’s culture, keenly perceive, and thusly impact how they measure personal success and define achievement.

If the closeness of an independent school community can escalate the tenor of ability praise, it can also be used to dynamically empower and validate a belief in students that they have control and are capable of enhancing their abilities. Research indicates that even simple interventions can beneficently shift students’ self-theories. Rather than laud the results of students’ performances, a growth mindset can be reinforced when the effort leading to the successful outcome is commended. If the previously referenced, “Is this good?” question is answered with a probing statement such as, “Tell me what you think about your work,” the consequences of the exchange are transformed.

Instead of promoting the teacher as some revered appraiser of competence, allowing students the opportunity to earnestly assess their effort causes them to practice self-evaluation and reflect upon the process of the product. When acclamation is warranted, effort praise should be given in place of ability praise. “Wow, you worked really hard,” or “I know that was not easy; I am so proud of your determination,” are statements that build-up the growth mindset. When effort is praised, students seek out challenges and realize failure is a stepping stone, not an endpoint.

In the study commissioned by SAIS, the growth mindset was reported as important by every category of student, from middle school to high school, and from first-year students to attendees of more than a decade. Based on the downward trend reported by the most established students in regard to their school’s promotion of the growth mindset, it would appear the students most inculcated within the community venerate the ability praise they perceive over the resiliency and motivation they desire. The family community of independent schools has the opportunity to inspire the concepts of a growth mindset. This can be accomplished through a simple, yet foundational shift in how students are praised.

Just as the community can act as a benevolent support system for its members, it can positively influence the way in which students view their ability. If independent school communities fully commit to embodying the ideals of the growth mindset in an endeavor to instill a capacity for all students to persevere and achieve their ambitions, then to the parents, teachers, staff, and administrators, thank you all for your effort, because this momentous undertaking is not an easy thing to do.


Wade Hanse teaches elementary school science at St. Martin’s Episcopal School in Atlanta. He recently received his Master’s degree in education policy research studies from Georgia State University. This is a modified version of his master’s thesis.


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