Carol Dweck, America’s leading educational psychologist, conducted a series of ground-breaking studies (summarized here) into cognition that sought to assess the value of praise on student learning. Her intention was to determine if specific teacher responses impeded or encouraged learning behavior. Praise comments were divided into two categories: words and phrases targeting existing intelligence, and those targeting effort and ingenuity.

Readers can easily imagine for themselves what those comments might be. “Aren’t you a clever lad” is one that I often heard myself as I was growing up. On the other side of the coin would be phrases like, “You really worked hard on that assignment,” or “I like what you did in that part of your answer.” Students who solved the first problem were given the first set of praise comments, students who failed to solve the first problem were given the second set. The results were more than interesting; they have spawned an entirely new direction in pedagogy.

Students who were told that they were bright, clever, intelligent, gifted, and so on obviously enjoyed the attention. But a curious thing happened when Dweck gave them a choice on a subsequent assignment. Almost invariably they chose the easier task that would ensure them further praise of this nature; comments focusing on their existing intelligence. Students who were praised for their effort and ingenuity in tackling the previous problem were far more likely to choose the more challenging problem. This pattern repeated itself for the next few challenges.

However, when Dweck removed the option of choice in a final and most difficult problem, the students who had struggled through the earlier difficult problems were much more persistent and successful at solving this final problem than the supposedly “clever” students who often simply gave up in frustration. Even more remarkably, when Dweck gave all students the opportunity to mark their own work, the “clever” students were far more likely to lie about how successful they had been.

This landmark study has since been confirmed by a mountain of research and supporting theory, and “Growth Mindset” pedagogy has become something of growth industry of late. The tenets of this theory are few and foundational, and counter basically all that we have thought about learning for generations. The theory contends that there is no fixed intelligence. The brain is almost infinitely malleable and capable of learning and growth, even in advanced old age (a comforting thought to us older learners!). It seems that the much maligned adage of “fake it until you make it” actually makes good pedagogical sense. Apparently we all have the capacity to grow into our jobs simply by consistently applying existing knowledge and being willing to make the effort to solve the problems before us with persistence and ingenuity.

The downside, if there is one, is to be cautious of the messages we give to others. Praise for what they already know and can do well, is counter-productive and leads to both stasis and deception. Praise for what they are attempting that they haven’t been able to do before, encourages growth and persistence. In others words, we want to avoid our children saying “I can’t do that,” and encourage them to think instead, “I can’t do that, YET!”