Jill explains that her family lives in a very competitive community—a competition well under way by the time babies are a year and a half old and being interviewed for day care. "Children who don't have a firm belief in themselves get pushed around—not just in the playground, but the classroom as well." So Jill wants to arm her children with a strong belief in their innate abilities. She praises them liberally. "I don't care what the experts say," Jill says defiantly. "I'm living it."
Jill wasn't the only one to express such scorn of these so-called "experts." The consensus was that brief experiments in a controlled setting don't compare to the wisdom of parents raising their kids day in and day out.
Even those who've accepted the new research on praise have trouble putting it into practice. Sue Needleman is both a mother of two and an elementary school teacher with eleven years' experience. Last year, she was a fourth-grade teacher at Ridge Ranch Elementary in Paramus, New Jersey. She has never heard of Carol Dweck, but the gist of Dweck's research has trickled down to her school, and Needleman has learned to say, "I like how you keep trying." She tries to keep her praise specific, rather than general, so that a child knows exactly what she did to earn the praise (and thus can get more). She will occasionally tell a child, "You're good at math," but she'll never tell a child he's bad at math.
But that's at school, as a teacher. At home, old habits die hard. Her eight-year-old daughter and her five-year-old son are indeed smart, and sometimes she hears herself saying, "You're great. You did it. You're smart." When I press her on this, Needleman says that what comes out of academia often feels artificial. "When I read the mock dialogues, my first thought is, Oh, please. How corny."
No such qualms exist for teachers at the Life Sciences Secondary School in East Harlem, because they've seen Dweck's theories applied to their junior high students. Dweck and her protege, Dr. Lisa Blackwell, published a report in the academic journal Child Development about the effect of a semester-long intervention conducted to improve students' math scores.
Life Sciences is a health-science magnet school with high aspirations but 700 students whose main attributes are being predominantly minority and low achieving. Blackwell split her kids into two groups for an eight-session workshop. The control group was taught study skills, and the others got study skills and a special module on how intelligence is not innate. These students took turns reading aloud an essay on how the brain grows new neurons when challenged. They saw slides of the brain and acted out skits. "Even as I was teaching these ideas," Blackwell noted, "I would hear the students joking, calling one another 'dummy' or 'stupid.' " After the module was concluded, Blackwell tracked her students' grades to see if it had any effect.
It didn't take long. The teachers— who hadn't known which students had been assigned to which workshop—could pick out the students who had been taught that intelligence can be developed. They improved their study habits and grades. In a single semester, Blackwell reversed the students' longtime trend of decreasing math grades.