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Education Math Stats Science

It's Dumb To Tell Kids They're Smart 243

theodp writes Over at Khan Academy, Salman Khan explains Why I'm Cautious About Telling My Son He's Smart. "Recently," writes Khan, "I put into practice research I had been reading about for the past few years: I decided to praise my son not when he succeeded at things he was already good at, but when he persevered with things that he found difficult. I stressed to him that by struggling, your brain grows. Between the deep body of research on the field of learning mindsets and this personal experience with my son, I am more convinced than ever that mindsets toward learning could matter more than anything else we teach." According to Dr. Carol Dweck, who Khan cites, the secret to raising smart kids is not telling kids that they are. A focus on effort — not on intelligence or ability — says Dweck, is key to success in school and in life.
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It's Dumb To Tell Kids They're Smart

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  • by ZorinLynx ( 31751 ) on Saturday August 23, 2014 @12:25PM (#47736799) Homepage

    The funny thing is I was told all the time growing up that I was "extremely smart" and "gifted", when in reality, I didn't FEEL like I was.

    Sure, I could do things with computers that few of the other kids could do, like program and build things. But I don't think I was "smart". I just LIKED doing those things, so I did them all the time, and thus became really good at those things.

    Meanwhile, you could ask me to cook a meal at the time and I'd completely fail because I never cooked. I didn't enjoy it, and was thus lousy at it.

    I don't think I was unusually "smart" or "gifted". I just got obsessed with computers and technology, so I got good at those things.

  • by ObsessiveMathsFreak ( 773371 ) <obsessivemathsfreak&eircom,net> on Saturday August 23, 2014 @12:31PM (#47736825) Homepage Journal

    But if you don't puff up your offspring with enough praise early one, how will they have the iron-cast confidence to windbag their way to the top in todays bullshit world? Again, what use is true intelligence if you don't have the bellicosity to shout down all gainsayers?

  • by Livius ( 318358 ) on Saturday August 23, 2014 @12:35PM (#47736845)

    I figured out I was smart as a kid.

    I also figured out that intelligence was a liability, and I've still seen very few environments where that wasn't true, and all of those only well after childhood.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday August 23, 2014 @12:44PM (#47736895)

    I had a similar experience. I excelled at math, science, computers, anything like that. I maintained good grades and was consistently at the top of my class. I was always praised for being smart and my future with a great job and a nice house was all but assured. After graduating college with an engineering degree and a 3.8 GPA, I was practically unemployable. I was either told I had no experience or was seen as a flight risk. So here I am on the backside of thirty, stuck in a dead-end job making drunken posts on the internet about how much I hate 3D printers and Space Nutters. Hell, it even got me banned from FARK.

    I wish no one ever set me up to fail. by telling me I am smart, giving me such high expectations. I wish someone would have slapped my 4-year old head and said "good grades don't put food on the table, go get a real job!"

  • Still not adding up (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Austerity Empowers ( 669817 ) on Saturday August 23, 2014 @12:52PM (#47736931)

    If this is true, why do psychologists continue to focus so much on IQ? Why do they insist there is a strong, undeniable link between IQ and success that must be catered to? Why has funding for students who, as they say, "are merely bright, but not gifted" entirely disappeared in favor of a fully mainstream approach? Why are the hard working students who achieve but who are not obvious savants lumped in with the merely average, and worst, the probably hopeless (whatever the reason)?

    Is this real science, or feel good "also-ran" science for the ignorant and unspecial, as one might be led to believe if one actually believed psychology was anything like actual science? We all want to believe articles like this are true, IQ is a bitter pill to swallow and one that seems even murkier the more one reads about it, however it represents our cultures mindset towards success. No company wants a merely bright hard-working person, they want a genius, they worship that genius. Give an academic institution a test, and they will run off with the truly exceptional students (the SATs allegedly correlate to IQ at 0.82, so they actually DO this). Give a corporation that test and they'll probably rather do without than hire anyone with an IQ below 120, which of course, represents the majority of people.

    I prefer to believe what is in this article in the same way that I prefer to believe in Free Will, but, however disappointing this may be, this does not reflect the prevailing attitudes of people that matter. Nothing in this article is substantial enough to use as a weapon to change education, and ultimately it's just feel good drivel, much like I think the IQ studies to date are, although sadly they represent the established convention. From a magazine like Scientific American I want something I can USE to make change.

  • by Overzeetop ( 214511 ) on Saturday August 23, 2014 @12:59PM (#47736985) Journal

    Success is about being in the right place at the right time with the correct skill set to take advantage of the situation. Hard work is the way you maximize your skill sets to that should you find yourself at the intersection of time and place you take advantage of it. The thing is, not only can't that intersection be anticipated, it can't be identified even when it's happening. Only in hindsight can you look back and realize where the critical moment was when your success actually started. Sadly, most people can't even do that. They believe that climbing the mountain of success was solely the result of having applied their skills and hard work, never realizing that - as the result of fortuitous time and place of their application - they were actually running down hill from that point on.

  • by sunhou ( 238795 ) on Saturday August 23, 2014 @01:32PM (#47737153)

    Unless kid #2 in fact had tried very hard but still failed, and says to himself, "Even my best attempt was not good enough. Next time I won't try so hard; that way, if I fail, I can just claim/believe it's because I didn't try my best." There are many ways to try and protect one's confidence in the face of failure.

    Not that I disagree with the basic premise here, that it's better to praise kids for effort (something they can control) than intrinsic talents.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday August 23, 2014 @01:54PM (#47737295)

    I met a kid that transferred from one of those "grade on effort" rather than "grade on accomplishment" schools. They rewarded kids for how hard they tried, not how well they did, and the kids did exactly what any self-respecting sociopath would do: they pretended to try hard.

    This kid was raging at her teacher for giving her an F on her spelling test. She kept saying "i tried as hard as I could, and the teacher KNOWS I am a bad speller!" But (as far as I know) the kid had not spent a single minute of her week actually studying for the test. She tried during the test, which does no good at all. And, in her prior environment, she would have been given an A and the teachers would have been patting their own backs at what a good job they were doing at encouraging a learning mindset.

    I agree in principle....the value of "its ok to fail so long as you try" is very worthwhile to instill in the kids. But the value of "I get away with failure if I convince people I tried" is pure poison. One must be very careful not to instill the latter when aiming for the former.

  • by JoeMerchant ( 803320 ) on Saturday August 23, 2014 @01:55PM (#47737301)

    I also figured out that intelligence was a liability, and I've still seen very few environments where that wasn't true, and all of those only well after childhood.

    Intelligence isn't a liability. Trying to tell other people they are wrong all the time is a liability. Telling people, "I am smarter than you, so you are wrong" is a liability.

    You don't have to tell people you are smarter directly. I spooked the hell out of a girlfriend who had a crazy 3 on 5 off (with other kinks in the pattern) schedule because, after 2 weeks, I had it figured out and when we were making plans for something next week, I told her when she was working and when she was free: "how'd you know that?" "Well, you're working tomorrow and it's time for the 4 week long break..." "I only know my schedule by looking it up..." "Oh...."

    People who perceive you are smarter (whether you are, or not) will often treat you as a threat. []

    Icahn has called CEOs the survivors of the corporate world, but says it's the "survival of the unfittest": "[The CEO] would never have anyone underneath him as his assistant that's brighter than he is because that might constitute a threat. So therefore, with many exceptions, we have CEO's becoming dumber and dumber and dumber."

  • Re:No no (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Z00L00K ( 682162 ) on Saturday August 23, 2014 @02:14PM (#47737401) Homepage

    Praise the kid for good ideas, but also ask your kid - how do you think this or that could be better?

    To be smart means that you don't stop thinking of how things can be better.

    And don't get angry at your kids because they take things apart - they learn from it. Pulling apart a cheap mechanical alarm clock to learn how it's made is part of the learning process. Unfortunately most modern devices are just bricks - there's nothing to learn from taking them apart.

    It's also part of the learning process to know how hard you can pull a screw before it breaks. You can list and use all the torque numbers in the world, but sometimes having the right feeling for how hard you can tighten a screw - and how it feels when it's done right is worth a lot more than having an advanced torque-limiting tool.

  • by __aaclcg7560 ( 824291 ) on Saturday August 23, 2014 @03:57PM (#47737859)

    I was misdiagnosed as mentally retarded when I was kindergarten due to hearing lost in one ear that wasn't diagnosed until years later. I traveled around the county in little yellow school buses, and puking my guts out every morning from motion sickness, to attend special ed classes. For six years in a row, I blew out the evaluation exams on the genius side of the scale and told each time that it was statistical fluke.The school system made three times more money from mentally retarded students. From the first through eight grades, I was told I was an idiot.

    I didn't bother to go to high school. Spent four years at home teaching myself from a personal library of 400 books, reading newspapers and news magazines, and watching documentaries on public television. Learning what I wanted to learn with a wide-ranging curiosity.

    After working with my father in construction for a few years, I enrolled in the adult re-entry program at the local community college. With a fifth-grade math and writing skills, and a college-level reading comprehension, it took me four years to get my associate degree in general education. I had trouble getting level-entry jobs because I didn't have a high school diploma.

    A decade later I went back to the community college to earn an associate degree in computer programming. Uncle Sam picked up the tab with a $3,000 USD tax credit to change careers. That took five years going part-time while working 80 hours per week as a lead video game tester. I made the president's list for maintaining a 4.0 GPA in my major when I graduated.

    Some people still think I'm an idiot to this day.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday August 23, 2014 @04:54PM (#47738229)

    I was like that but lazy. Hated doing their work if I already "got" the concept. Time to move on and learn something else for me.

    Got poor grades after about 5th grade. Yet everyone talked about how I used big words at a young age and how I was programming computers for fun in my spare time. Dropped out of school because some government teacher thought I should attend a city council meeting when I was working until dark every night after school to support my apartment/car Junior year.

    Now I run a company and make lots of money but I'm not an "A-type" personality who gets good grades and such. I always rebelled and hated their "cleaned" version of every story which painted brutal-history in a friendly light. Then teachers told me how wrong I always was so it made me very stubborn because I *knew* that the stuff I was doing in my spare time was "better" than their mindless waste-of-time drivel.

    Turns out that someone who is smart enough to see that burning yourself out on fake school work is actually a successful candidate these days. Skipping past bullshit and ignoring the rat-race mentality that school tries so hard to instill actually molds you into a more successful position.

    In business I want to skip every possible hurdle instead of running face-first through it like some "A-Type" would be trained to do. I want to put in 20% of the effort yet visibly and outwardly appear to be doing 120% and be seen as "busy". Being a smart slacker is the key here. Slack on every single *unimportant* issue and only focus exactly where it matters (or when people are examining you hard). Type-A people will see you as failing but the dumber people (most) will all be dazzled and impressed. You can just apply dumb-person-logic and call the Type-A people that called you out, "negative" or "unproductive" and it will *win* because dumb people always fall for it and they are the majority.

    In business I want to avoid slacking up front to gain trust.... then I slack after about 6 months. It makes me lots of money and gives me enough to eventually hire a young smart gun who will invent the parts I need to now be non-bullshit. (non-slacking).

    Then you convert the business into a type-A ran place and eventually HR or the other A-types run out all your slackers (successful people). Then you avoid letting your best asset (the slackers) leave, so you move them out and on to the next venture starting off back in the slacking phase.

    No school will tell you this but i will. I'm actually the young gun and a slacker. I'm not the greedy business guy but knowing the whole landscape shows you where us young gun smart slackers fit in. We will always have a place at the first-part of business where 120% outward appearance is needed. (And the Type-A's would be telling client's we're too busy or booked or need lots of time when I really need slackers to make everyone think we're good so the money comes in allowing us to purchase talent in *be* good.).

    Get it? I shared the jewels my friend. Good luck.

  • Re:No no (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Frobnicator ( 565869 ) on Saturday August 23, 2014 @07:02PM (#47738971) Journal

    Praise the kid for good ideas, but also ask your kid - how do you think this or that could be better?

    Those are part of it, but really the report is just that Khan discovered something well-known in education.

    Really, it is well known for everybody involved in motivation.

    You get more of whatever you recognize.

    Any school teacher can explain how when you point out the bad behavior, "Johnny, sit back down", you have rewarded the child. It may not be what most people think of as recognition, but it serves to reinforce the behavior.

    When you recognize a child "You are smart", or "You are so fast", or other attributes that they cannot control, it can have many negative effects. One negative effect is the child can become complacent. They may think to themselves, I'm already good enough, I don't need to do any more. When that happens the child will quickly stop succeeding. Another negative effect is the child can become fearful. They may think to themselves, I don't know what I did to become smart, what if I'm not smart enough tomorrow? What if I lose it? I've seen this happen to several children who quickly break down.

    Instead, educators are taught to reward effort when they see it. Publicly praise how Johnny has worked hard on the project. Comment about how it looks like Jenny spent many hours researching the detail. When you are uncertain, praise anyway, "It must have taken some effort to prepare all of this, good job."

    Those families that encourage learning tend to also reward and encourage effort. There may be a few of the "you're so smart" complements, but there will also be statements like "Good job figuring those details out", "That looks complicated, it must have taken effort to understand", "You studied a lot", etc. Generally the focus is (and should be) on rewarding the effort and the completion of tasks rather than rewarding the natural state.

    Rounding it out, for kids in sports you complement "Good job working hard at practice today" to reward the effort rather than "Good job at being so tall" which is something they cannot control.

  • by Nyder ( 754090 ) on Saturday August 23, 2014 @10:05PM (#47739911) Journal

    From the time I was born, my parents lied to me. By the time I was 10, I realized that adults where full of shit when they talked to kids.

  • Re:No no (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Frobnicator ( 565869 ) on Sunday August 24, 2014 @01:01AM (#47740487) Journal

    If you only ever praise effort instead of achievement you will wind up with a generation of morons that think they're great just for trying even when they never get anything done.

    Let's try again...

    rewarding the effort and the completion of tasks rather than rewarding the natural state.

    Trying to reward "being smart" is ineffectual at best. Similarly it is ineffectual to reward basketball players just for being tall, or reward a junior player simply for being young, or reward a senior player simply for being senior.

    Rewarding effort and completion are effective at teaching students that those (rather than the grades or being first place) are important. If being first place is the only thing that matters then means are unimportant: break the opponent's equipment, or even put your opponent in the hospital, to reach the goal of being first. If grades are more important than learning, cheat from your neighbor or hack the grade book so you can get the rewarded grade.

    When the rewards focus only on the final scores you get children who value the wrong things. Once their life of cheating in school is done, it transitions to the real world into lying, cheating, and stealing to get other outcomes without putting in effort or completing work. Or, if they use those patterns in management to try to encourage others they will be confused about why those same patterns fail to produce positive results.

    Real world example:

    At one place I worked several years ago there was a team of 6 salespeople. Management wanted to get the most sales out of them, so they created a reward. They made a big poster and charted sales, the highest sales would get a paid trip to a fabulous resort plus some spending money. Most of the salesfolk instantly gave up. In the first week there was a clear leader: The senior salesperson was about quadruple everyone else. By the end of the first month the senior person polished off another deal; they were at over $200K three were between $50K and $20K, and the two intern-type grunts were around $5k each. The reason was obvious to several of us, the senior salesperson worked with management to build and sign the corporate contracts, the three medium-tier people had a collection of established regular customers, and the entry level noobs were stuck with cold calls. After three months the senior salesperson acted all thankful and grateful for the challenge, the attitude of 'better luck next time' to those who obviously never had a chance. When I talked with the mangers about it they were confused about why the interns were upset and why the more experienced workers weren't putting in an effort to win. They couldn't understand it because their own value system only valued the end goal and competition rather than effort, cooperation, and completion. Their challenge rewarded tenure rather than growth. Sales were down significantly over those months. The end result was less money for the business, reduced morale, and one of the salesfolk quitting over it.

    A far better system would have been to set an ambitious combined sales goal, and all those who helped cross some boundaries get the reward. The tenured staff then has an incentive to help the beginners succeed, and everyone has an incentive to increase total sales. Instead of rewarding the natural and immutable situation of tenure, they could have rewarded effort and completion of sales. Everyone whose efforts contribute to the completion of the goal gets the rewards. These systems tend to work well as incentives. For example, "If we meet X we'll have a team party", or "everyone who meets goal X will get two days off." Those who have crossed the threshold typically then help their peers to also cross the threshold.

    Rewarding "You sure are smart", or "You sure are tall", or "you sure have tenure" is just plain stupid. It might feel good to the person giving the reward and the person getting the reward, but to outsiders it is usually painfully obvious that the system is broken.

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