Author: Dr Andrew Bell

As parents, or as teachers, how often have we deliberately or inadvertently praised a child for their innate abilities?  I would suggest we do this more than we realise, and this has been happening for generations. Of course, the intent is all positive, but the reality is quite the opposite and is detrimental to their learning progress at school, in sport, and in a myriad of areas, with potential flow-on effects through life. As parents, teachers or coaches, we may not even realise we are doing it, which is why I am raising our awareness as a learning community, or reminding us, if we are already familiar with these principles.

So, what exactly is the problem in happily bellowing to an excited child, clearly proud of their latest accomplishment, “Wow, you are so smart!”, or any similar statement? The problem lies in the phrasing and selection of wording to acknowledge the child. Rather than referring to their ‘God-given’ abilities and implying they are naturally ‘smart’, ‘clever’ or ‘fast’, for example, for which they had no input or influence, instead I suggest we comment on the elements that they did create and invest in for themselves, which can be relevant at any age. For example, this could be the amount of effort invested into a project, a running race, a piece of writing, a speech, or whatever. Therefore, the focus is on something that can be improved, adapted, refined and evolve as the processinto which the child has direct input, influence and even control, as something they can learn to do. Avoid any innate pre-determined or fixed element that is therefore inevitably linked to the outcome of something. The latter of these builds up an expectation always to be ‘smart’ in all situations and we know that is not achievable for virtually any young person to sustain. I suggest to parents and educators to maintain the positive intent that was always the point in the first place, but instead we must remind ourselves to shift the language to “Wow, I am really proud of the effort you put into your school art assignment” or “I really like the way you persevered through the race and you never gave up trying your best”, which can be true of first or last place!

The clear difference and benefit is that the praise is attached to effort, not innate ability. There are numerous critical benefits to taking this approach. Importantly, the child will begin to realise that they have control and influence over the outcome, rather than having none – positive or negative. That is, effort leads to improvement and then in turn influences the outcome at that point in time. Effort can always be revisited and morphed into different areas of improvement, leading to further potential gains in the area in focus. Conversely, innate ability is fixed and cannot be changed and if this belief develops, it will have a negative impact on learning because a child will at some point inevitably associate natural ability and performance as the determinants. ‘Why bother trying harder if I cannot influence the outcome?’, is likely to be the child’s damaging thought process. We see this in schools as ‘I’m no good at Maths’ or ‘I’m hopeless at sport’. We need to alter these self-fulfilling prophecies in favour of more productive beliefs about what is possible. Modern-day brain science affirms fixed and growth mindsets are very real, and research shows the neural pathways demonstrated in individuals during fixed and growth mindset thoughts are quite different in the brain.

Another benefit of shifting the focus is that the child begins to take responsibility for their performance and outcomes, rather than always shifting the responsibility to other causes and other people. Ultimately, this can develop into blaming other factors in order to protect one’s self-worth and to create a constant disassociation when things go wrong. Only when things go right, do these types of learners connect the result to themselves. This is not optimal for reflective analysis and learning, nor for taking calculated risks, exploring, experimenting, analysing or synthesising, because the learner may not like what they find and therefore avoids making such a connection.

The way this may play out in the school yard or classroom is illustrated by the following example. Mary asks Billy if he studied for the test next lesson. Billy says he didn’t study at all as he’s been way too busy doing other things. In reality, Billy has studied extremely hard but doesn’t want anyone to know. Why not? The answer is that if Billy doesn’t do well, he can say, ‘Oh, that’s because I didn’t study for that test, but if I had, then I would have done much better’. Translated, Billy wants to be seen as naturally smart and capable, and he has built in a protective mechanism, just in case. We see this all the time in classrooms where some students are so keen to protect their capability profile, they avoid risking doing any damage whatsoever to it, and avoid taking any learning risks at all, including avoiding asking questions or asking for help for fear of what others may think. This conservative approach is far inferior to the learner who takes risks and searches for endless ways to improve and is not worried about what others think because they latch on to the benefits of learning.

In the above example, Billy even has a bonus outcome that if he aces the test, then he can convey just how smart he is because he ‘didn’t study’, and imagine what he would have got if he did. It is perplexing that our society values innate ability more than effort. We gravitate to the ‘natural’, the ‘gifted’, and even idolise those with ‘super-powers’ from a very young age. But what about the person who doesn’t have much innate ability and succeeds through sheer effort and determination – why don’t we revere that person? As I age, I know which one I admire more, far more actually, though it wasn’t always that way when I was young. What a pity for us all who live in such a society, and I relish the opportunity to learn about those who have overcome adversity to be great successes in various fields.

This can all be explained more coherently and with greater effect by reading even just one book, if you haven’t already. That book is Mindset(by Carol Dweck) and one I have recommended in the past to parents and certainly all educators. It remains perhaps one of the most important books for parents and teachers to read, if not themost important, when it comes to attitudes to learning and the role we play as adults. The fixed mind is one that believes it cannot learn and natural abilities pre-determine performance. This is absolutely devastating for any learner, and especially children in their developmental years, yet, sadly, many students have a fixed mindset from a young age and as adults we are largely responsible even if we don’t realise our impact. The opposite is true too. A growth mindset is the key to success in unlocking and unleashing virtually unlimited learning potential, and also is influenced by adults’ attitude towards younger people, at home, in school, on the playing field, and so on.

In closing, my simple advice to all parents and educators is to instil the belief in all children that learning is possible and everyone can improve very substantially with the right approach. In her book, Dweck gives the excellent example of the ability to draw before and after specialised training. Often artistic ability of this kind is attributed to innate ability, yet research examples have demonstrated very poor artists initially can develop into excellent ones with the right training and practice. The principle of ‘deliberate practice’ is one aspect of distinction in performance, though I’ll revisit that important tool available to us all in another article because it is considered the gold standard of all types of practice, leading to substantial improvement, and it deserves fuller attention than a passing sentence.

As the adults in our children’s lives, we are compelled to intervene and correct any child (or person) who claims they cannot do something because they weren’t born with those abilities. Let’s remember, any ‘God-given’ or innate ability is just the starting point. What we are prepared to contribute through learning and practice determines the end point, if one even exists.