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Kimberly Blessing Hi, my name is Kimberly Blessing. I'm a computer scientist, Web developer, standards evangelist, feminist, and geek. This is where I write about life, the Web, technology, women's issues, and whatever else comes to mind.

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February 2012 Blog Archive

They Told Me I Was Smart

A great post over at Wired, Why Do Some People Learn Faster?, included a pretty comprehensive explanation of some research done by Stanford psychology professor Carol Weck. From the article:

Her most famous study, conducted in twelve different New York City schools along with Claudia Mueller, involved giving more than 400 fifth graders a relatively easy test consisting of nonverbal puzzles. After the children finished the test, the researchers told the students their score, and provided them with a single line of praise. Half of the kids were praised for their intelligence. “You must be smart at this,” the researcher said. The other students were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.”

The students were then allowed to choose between two different subsequent tests. The first choice was described as a more difficult set of puzzles, but the kids were told that they’d learn a lot from attempting it. The other option was an easy test, similar to the test they’d just taken.

When Dweck was designing the experiment, she expected the different forms of praise to have a rather modest effect. After all, it was just one sentence. But it soon became clear that the type of compliment given to the fifth graders dramatically affected their choice of tests. When kids were praised for their effort, nearly 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. However, when kids were praised for their intelligence, most of them went for the easier test. What explains this difference? According to Dweck, praising kids for intelligence encourages them to “look” smart, which means that they shouldn’t risk making a mistake.

Growing up, I was always being told that I was smart — by my family, by my teachers, and even by fellow students. I wore it as a badge of pride. And now I realize that was the worst thing for me — because I realize that back then — but even today — I make safe choices so that I avoid making mistakes and thus potentially looking stupid.

I need to print this out and carry it around with me, perhaps on the back of something that reads It’s OK to make mistakes!:

The problem with praising kids for their innate intelligence — the “smart” compliment — is that it misrepresents the psychological reality of education. It encourages kids to avoid the most useful kind of learning activities, which is when we learn from our mistakes. Because unless we experience the unpleasant symptoms of being wrong — that surge of Pe activity a few hundred milliseconds after the error, directing our attention to the very thing we’d like to ignore — the mind will never revise its models. We’ll keep on making the same mistakes, forsaking self-improvement for the sake of self-confidence.