Wednesday, September 4, 2013

My daughter's good, but don't call her smart!

This story on NPR reminded me -- again -- of how much it bothers me when we call kids smart.  In fact, calling successful kids smart is one of the worst things we can do: to (and for) them, and to (and for) other kids.

Many years ago I decided to stop using the word "smart" to describe my students, on the grounds that the word "smart" is so imprecise, using it is just an excuse for sloppy thinking.  There are a bunch of different ways a student can be "smart":
  • Catches on to new ideas and techniques quickly.
  • Doesn't forget things he or she has learned, even a long time ago.
  • Anticipates consequences and implications of new ideas and issues.
  • Sees generalizations; synthesizes readily.
  • Sees new applications for already-learned facts and skills.
  • Makes few, if any, mistakes in applying already-learned knowledge and skills.
  • Generates new, unusual ideas.
  • Is intellectually playful: likes wordplay, quasi-argumentative banter, hypotheticals.
After a year or two I backed off, but I still use lists like this when I'm writing college and scholarship recommendations: it doesn't help my students if my praise is essentially meaningless.

The NPR story took a different tack.  It compared Western and Asian parents' comments to their children, both when their children are successful, and when their children are unsuccessful.  This ground has been trodden many times -- notably by Po Bronson and Ashley Merriman, in articles and in their awesome book Nurtureshock.  I'll summarize typical comments in the chart below:


Western Parent
Asian Parent
Successful Child
“You’re so smart!”
“You worked so hard!”
Unsuccessful Child
“I wasn’t good at math either!”
“You must work harder!”

There are two major takeaways from an educational-policy perspective:
  • Teaching kids that success is a result of being smart sets them up for failure.  When these kids encounter genuine struggle, they often conclude that they are simply not talented enough to be successful.
  • Teaching kids that success is a result of working hard sets them up for further success, because attributing their success to the only factor that an individual can control (as opposed to talent, luck, and ease of task).
But I'd add a third issue--one that I've encountered with my students and my own child, and especially with talented girls who work hard.  These students are proud of their hard work, and when someone says "You're so smart" or "You're a genius," they don't experience those comments as praise.  Instead, they feel that their hard work has been devalued, because they've just been told, "Look, you're not successful because of anything you chose to do -- you're successful because you were born that way."  (The variation on this that drives my daughter bananas is "Of course you're good at math--your dad's a math teacher"--which is why she never lets me actually teach her math.)

So telling successful kids they're smart is bad for at least five reasons:
  1. It tells successful kids that they shouldn't get credit for their success, because that success isn't due to anything they actually did. So it's insulting.
  2. It sets successful kids up for failure, because it doesn't give them anything to fall back on when they encounter challenging tasks.
  3. It tells unsuccessful kids that they can't do anything to become successful, because the successful kids are the ones who are already smart.  So it's implicitly insulting to unsuccessful kids:  you're not doing well because you're dumb.
  4. It sets unsuccessful kids up for continued failure, because--in this worldview--there's nothing they can do to become smarter.
  5. It's an inexcusably-sloppy way for a teacher to describe a student, because it doesn't say anything about what the student actually does.
So please do recognize your successful students' (and children's) achievements--just don't call them smart.