Based on Silver’s new book, Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8: Teaching Kids to Succeed

Sometimes when I present workshops on mindsets I like to start with a demonstration that relates to the audience.  We either role-play a situation or I read a scenario I want them to react to.  Here’s one I recently used with music teachers. 

Scenario:  Choir Try-outs

            Kyra’s music teacher is listening to individual students sing a short solo piece so that she can decide if and where each might fit in with her choir.  Kyra begins by telling her teacher she has never sung in public before, but people tell her she is a pretty good singer.  Her performance is impressive.  She makes a few errors, but she belts out a simple version of Madonna’s “Material Girl” that is on-key and energetic.  The music teacher rushes to Kyra, hugs her, and proclaims, “Class, today you have witnessed one of the best auditions I have ever seen.  Wow!  Kyra, you certainly have a natural gift for singing!  You are definitely going to have the number one spot in choir this year.  You may take us all the way to the state competition.  You have incredible talent!”

            The music teacher suddenly realizes every other student is staring at her.  She smiles sweetly and asks, “Okay, who wants to sing next?”

My audience usually bursts into laughter as they realize that probably no one will open their mouths after the effusive praise just heaped upon Kyra. And who could blame them?

How Praise Reinforces a Fixed Mindset

When we praise children for being naturally gifted or talented, aren't we essentially telling them we value them as being somehow divinely endowed rather than valuing that they make gains through hard-earned achievement?  Aren’t we sending the message that natural talent and exceptional ability are what it takes to be successful?  Our society is so focused on labeling people as being inherently brilliant, talented, beautiful, and/or physically superior that we have duped ourselves into believing that the most valued assets are those that are effortless.

Don’t we really want learners who constantly push their boundaries and diligently strive to attain more through their efforts?  In his book, Talent is Overrated (2008), Geoff Colvin argues that deliberate effort is far more important to world-class performance than innate talent. Olympic winner Matthew Syed states in his book, Bounce (2010), that talent is not nearly as important as practice, hard work, and determination for long-term success.

Wouldn’t it be far more appropriate for the music teacher to ask how many hours of practice Kyra put into achieving today’s performance level?  Shouldn’t she have said something like, “Wow, Kyra, it took a lot of courage for you to try-out today.  It sounds as though you have managed to develop quite an extensive vocal range on your own.  I’m anxious to see just how far you can go with formal training.  We work really hard in here, but I think you’ll like how you’ll grow as a singer.”

Focusing on Choice and Effort

Often teachers and parents ask me, “What are some more ways I can praise effectively?  You have convinced me to stop focusing on natural talents and gifts, but I run out of statements to make about his effort and his choices.”  My answer is that we need to examine closely the way we give feedback in general.  Broad value statements are of little use.  Feedback needs to be constructive and informative.  Some of the most effective feedback to learners can be in the form of questions rather than evaluative statements.  (e.g. “How did you choose your audition song?”  “What were the steps you took in order to reach that level of performance?”  Walk us through your process for preparing for today.”)

Children are so eager for adult attention.  It is such a simple thing to look them in the eyes and genuinely listen to what they are telling us, or to ask them significant questions in order to have them extend their own thinking.  From my experience as a teacher and a mother I can tell you that kids have limitless means for getting adults to pay attention to them.  Unfortunately many adults believe that paying attention means praising a child's every move.  Research has taught us that what children are starved for is feedback.  It doesn't have to be effusive, over-the-top praise.  It just needs to be honest, specific, and helpful.  Feedback is not about labeling or praising or scolding.  It is about giving learners our undivided attention and providing them with information that will help them make improvements.

Feedback That Changes Perspectives

A word of caution about effective feedback is in order here. Telling children they simply need to work harder is not sufficient feedback.  It is important to remember that inefficient learners often have no idea what the adult means by that statement.  I’ve watched students stare at a single page in a textbook for extended periods of time who believe they “studied hard.”  Rather than just admonishing students to work hard at something we need to model the effective preparation we want them to use.  Whether we are talking about a study skill, an athletic performance, or some other area we need to guide students in specific techniques for practicing effectively and efficiently.

One of the hardest things I have had to do in my work with student motivation is to stop myself from praising children’s innate abilities or intelligence.  For so long I have told them things like, “You are so smart.”  “You have such a great talent.” “You are going to rule the world.”  I am still working on changing my feedback to statements like, “Wow, you stuck with that until you solved it.” “Show me the strategy you used to get that new skill.” “Tell me how you mustered the courage to take the stand you took on that issue.”  My head knows the right things to say, but habit keeps me wanting to pump out the old labels.  However, I believe that words have power, and adults should be mindful of how we influence student’s perspectives with deficient or inappropriate feedback.

Stealing the Joy from the Learner

When the music teacher praises Kyra’s vocal talent she is reinforcing a fixed mindset (Dweck, 2006, 2008).  Kyra may come to view her status as the #1 singer as more important than anything she can learn from pursuing different techniques or exploring other avenues of presentation with her craft.  She now has the pressure of always being the best at whatever she does in music class, and that can potentially erode her love for singing and her confidence in doing it.  Labeling children has many unforeseen consequences.

How many times does a family label one child as the designated responsible one, another as the entertainer of the family, and still another as the child destined for med school?  Not only do these labels create conflict among the siblings (“Well, look what Mr. Responsible One just pulled.”  “She's not the only one in this family who can be funny.”  “Oh, like I'm not smart enough to go to med school even if I wanted to.”), they also limit the ways the labeled child sees himself. 

Labels can set up unrealistic expectations and make a child even more vulnerable to feelings of inadequacy.  In my own family my oldest brother was labeled the smart one.  I was labeled the entertainer, and my youngest of three brothers was labeled the charmer.  My other brother (# three in line), whose surprise arrival came seventeen months after I was born, had trouble establishing his particular calling.   As a child he just never excelled at anything in particular.  In his middle school years he got very interested in art.  He dabbled with painting, drawing, chalks, and other media.  He truly enjoyed what he was doing.

My parents seized the opportunity finally to give him a label.  He was to be our family artist.  They poured all kinds of praise and support to their exceptional son and went on and on about how talented he was.  Of course, they did this with the utmost confidence they were doing the right thing.  Surely a child showered with compliments and predictions of future success would thrive in his endeavors.  Not so.

In high school the family artist took an advanced class with an array of other students interested in art.  Some were far more experienced than he; some produced works superior to his, and soon my brother began to feel inadequate and intimidated.  Not wanting to lose the approval of my parents he began to hedge on some of his assignments.  Rather than draw and paint original work, he began to copy and even trace some of his pictures.  I remember my mother being horrified to learn that one of his paintings she had abundantly praised was actually something he had “borrowed” from another source.

And why was she surprised?  After basically being told that his claim to fame in our family was that he was a gifted artist, how could this young boy possibly take the risk of letting down the people he cared about?  Once he was identified as the artist, he did everything he could to maintain that identity -- even cheat.  The label robbed him of his joy in visual imagery, the thrill of learning new things, and the excitement of taking chances -- even if it meant he would only temporarily stumble.  He was far more concerned about appearing to be a talented artist than in actually becoming one.  It was a very sad time in his life, and unfortunately, it became a template for the way he handled most everything else he ever encountered – immediate success or quit.

If a significant adult in his life had been able to give him effective feedback about how to improve as an artist, things may have turned out differently.  Perhaps he would have developed a growth mindset and learned to value to his journey and the incremental steps it takes to be a successful painter.  He might have realized that exerting effort did not mean he was less of an artist, but rather it meant he was taking a logical path towards excellence.  Maybe he would have learned that nothing worthwhile in life comes without effort, and this setback along with many others, would not have derailed him entirely.

 “Are you telling us that basically anyone can be anything he wants if he just tries hard enough?

No, I am not saying that at all.  I am saying that anyone can be better at what she wants if she is willing to put in the time and effort it takes to do so.  Certainly there are physical and mental problems that can act as constraints.  Specific physical attributions can put people at a disadvantage for some sports.  Of course, we don’t want to be too quick to judge on that alone.  Doug Flutie, star NFL quarterback, was told he was too short to play pro football.  Tom Dempsey, born without toes on his right foot kicked the longest field goal in NFL history.  Ludwig Von Beethoven overcame deafness and depression to become one of the world’s greatest composers.  Bethanie Hamilton lost her left arm in a shark attack and still became a National Champion Surfer. And Jessica Cox, born without arms, flies planes, drives cars, and holds a black belt in Tae Kwon-DO.  So I am very cautious about setting limits on people.

I do think there is a degree of hard-wiring that gives certain people an initial advantage in their chosen pursuits.  Some individuals seem to have a certain knack or proclivity for the tasks they pursue.  They seem to have a natural ability to do what is very hard for the rest of us.  However, from research I have read by Anders Ericsson (1993), who studies expertise, I have come to believe that whatever benefits there are from being physically or mentally endowed, success will not survive long term without deliberate practice, commitment to hard work, resiliency, and passion. 

I think it is important that children realize anyone can get better at anything with strategic effort.  I love to sing.  I have a voice that is loud and enthusiastic.  The problem is that I have trouble staying on key, and I have no breath control.  I am aware when I am off-key, but I don’t know how to fix it.  Will I ever be the next Idina Menzel, Lea Michele, or Shania Twain?  I don’t think so.  I don’t have their training, their skills, or their voice quality.  But could I get to be a whole lot better singer than I am right now?  Definitely!  I could take voice lessons, practice, and do the things great singers do.  Will I end up on a Broadway stage?  I don’t know yet.  What I do believe is that I could be a much better singer than I am now if I focused on that particular goal and did the kind of deliberate practice I would need to do to strengthen my ability.

There is also the issue of opportunity for a lot of us.  Pink, Gladwell, Colvin, and Syed all acknowledge that being in close proximity to experts can certainly give someone “a leg up.”  Money is also an issue. Independently wealthy people have the luxury of focusing on their goals with little regard about to how to pay for food, shelter, and other necessities in the meantime.  They can travel to the finest schools and hire the best teachers and coaches.  It does seem easier for them.  And yet, so many of them do not become successful.   So it has got to be more than that.

 I am saying that we have to stop perpetuating this “myth of talent” or “myth of intelligence” in our young people.  Yes, people have different aptitudes, skills, and competencies, but except for a minute portion of our population who has severe impairments, we can all get better at things that matter to us.  It just takes a commitment to effort and a choice to have a growth mindset.

 Colvin, G. (2008). Talent is overrated:  What really separates world class performers from everybody else. London, England: Penguin Group.

 Dweck, C.S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success.  New York: Random House, Inc.

 Dweck, C.S. (2008). The secret to raising smart kids . . . Scientific American Mind Vol. 18, No. 6, 36-43.

 Ericsson, K.A. Krampe, R.T., & Tesch-Romer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the aquistion of expert performance. Psychological Review, Vol 100. No 3, 363-406.

 Gladwell, M. (2008).  Outliers: The story of success.  New York: Little Brown and Company.

 Pink, D. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York: Penguin Group.

 Syed, M. (2010).  Bounce.  New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Silver, D. (2012). Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8: Teaching Kids to Succeed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Publishers.