The Power of Words

We may be made out of more than words but, in contrast to the old proverb’s assertion that “Sticks and stones may break my bones but hard words cannot hurt me”, words do have the power to construct how we see ourselves as learners and form our behavioural responses to challenges we face in life. This has tremendously important implications for teaching.

There is an interesting article in today’s Weekend Australian magazine entitled “Why It’s Wrong to Praise Your Kids” by Po Bronson. Research done by Carol Dweck in the US over the past ten years has confirmed what I have intuitively ‘known’ for a while: that praising kids for being ‘smart’ doesn’t prevent them from underperforming in school or increase their self-esteem; such praise might actually be the cause of underperformance.

Properly controlled psychological tests were done. Students did one test that guaranteed success then were offered a choice of a second test that either contained some puzzles that were challenging but from which they would gain some valuable learning, or a test that was similar to the one that they had just done. Results showed students who had been praised for being ‘smart’ after the first test invariably chose to do the latter type of test the second time – the one that guaranteed further success and confirmed their image of themselves as ‘smart’.  90% of the students who had been praised for their effort, as somehow contributing towards their success on the first test, chose to do the more challenging test as their second one. Dweck says “Emphasising effort gives a child a variable that they can control. They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasising natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control and it provides no good recipe for responding to failure” In fact, students who had been over-praised for their ‘smarts’ often didn’t take academic risks as they didn’t like to be seen making mistakes and some went as far as cheating because they hadn’t developed a strategy for handling ‘failure’.

In this same article, the author mentions another project that was carried out by Dweck’s colleague, Lisa Blackwell, in her junior secondary mathematics classes. One group of students was taught study skills and another group was taught both study skills and a unit on how intelligence is not innate; that intelligence could be developed. The latter group of students reversed their previously failing performances in the subject dramatically whereas the former group showed little improvement. The only difference had been the fact that one group had been given the idea that the brain was a muscle that needed a strong workout to make it stronger…that intelligence could be worked on and improved through effort.

“We compose these propositions….terrible incantations of defeats..” (from Men Made Out of Words by Wallace Stevens) 

Praise can be effective as a positive, motivating force but it must be authentic, it must be specific and it must be sincere. Kids can tell the difference. Esteem-building praise can actually cause performance to fall as students see through such praise and come to believe that they have been singled out by the teacher to receive it because the teacher thinks they are hopeless and lack ability and therefore need such praise. Certain research indicates that positive criticism is actually a better creator of improved performance in teenagers as this conveys to the student a positive belief in the student’s ability to do better if they did certain things differently.

The ability to respond to failure by exerting more effort (or trying different approaches) is the ability to persist. It is also linked to another favourite hobby horse of mine: resilience. We must exert more effort, ourselves, as teachers – and therefore as people who have the potential to be great sources of behaviour modelling and inspiration – to help and support our students develop the belief that they have the cognitive and behavioural controlling capability to develop their intelligence. 

The words we choose to use when praising kids can have the power to inspire and encourage greater effort, resilience and persistence and they can also have the power to encourage and support a defeatist approach to learning. We need to be very mindful of our role in all of this.


About Linda

I have been involved in secondary mathematics education in Victoria, Australia for over 25 years.
This entry was posted in Ideas for teaching & learning, Students. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Power of Words

  1. Anonymous says:

    Interesting Stuff…and the undeniable power of words!

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