Growth mindset, Habits

Why ‘clever’ is not a helpful word

We have discovered previously that the way we speak to ourselves can have a massive influence on our lives. Also the way we speak to others can have a huge impact on their life. I have spoken before about the word ‘clever’. At first glance it seems like it is a fairly innocuous word. Perhaps it could be used as a superlative to describe children when they have done something really well. But really, secretly, it is one of the most dangerous words to allow into a school.

Take a standard Year 2 maths lesson where children have been set ten simple number sentences. One child finishes before all the others and has his sheet marked by the teacher. “Wow, you’re fast, you’ve got them all right. You are so clever,” says the teacher. Doesn’t seem too suspect at this point. But look deeper.

What is the teacher actually praising? Why is the child clever? Because they finished quickly? That they got everything right?

What message is this giving the child for their learning in the long term? That if they don’t finish quickly or if they don’t get everything right, that they are not clever? What if the child didn’t even try that hard because the maths problems were not the right level of challenge? They have just been told they are clever for not even doing their best. How will this impact on their learning in the future? What message will it give their internal voice? How will it influence how they perceive themselves?

There’s every chance the child will be telling themselves: “I’m clever because I finished quickly” and “I don’t always need to try hard because I’m clever”.

What about other children who overhear this praise being given? What if they don’t finish quickly? What if they get one or a few wrong? Does that mean they are not clever?

Rather than praising the outcome, we should try to praise the process. An example of a process could be effort, different strategies, techniques, or behaviour.

By praising children’s ability to try hard we are reinforcing the importance of the most crucial skill they will need for the modern adult word – the ability to be resilient. Even if they are finding something hard, or not getting something quite right in the first couple of tries, what we need them to learn is that they should try hard and not give up. By telling them they are clever, we are killing the acquisition of this skill.

Children need to be enthusiastic with their efforts too. In fact, they should be as enthusiastic to learn as you are to teach. So we need to make sure children are intrinsically motivated to try their best and learn new things. How do we do this? We eradicate the use of the word ‘work’. Work is something you ‘do’, that you ‘get on with’, that you ‘complete’. Learning is something you acquire over time. In every school I have worked in I have had to have a conversation at some point with a teacher about the importance of learning gains made, rather than work being completed.

I remember being in a Year 2 maths lesson once and the teacher had asked the children to tidy up for break time. A small group of children ignored this at the behest of a learning support assistant who was stood over them saying “That one is fourteen. The answer is fourteen. Come on, write fourteen.”

The LSA believed that the teacher was expecting all the children in the group to finish and to get every problem correct. It didn’t matter whether the children understood the concept or had reached a mastery level. It was all about doing the work, being right and getting it finished. Children need to understand that we work because we have to, and we learn because we want to.

It is important to remember that if we just focus on effort only then it can lead to four common problems:

  1. By making it sound as simple as ‘try harder’ we are diluting the entire theory behind the learning process.
  2. It doesn’t help children who try hard and still fail. They would be better off developing other processes and formulating different strategies.
  3. Effort is not the only thing. If a child tries hard but doesn’t learn anything then that isn’t good. Sometimes we say ‘great effort, you tried your best’ just to make children feel good in the moment.
  4. It can lead to the belief that a child has failed because they didn’t try hard enough.

We should praise different strategies that children use, how they modify their techniques, when they ask for feedback, when they show resilience, and when they collaborate. If we focus on just praising the effort children put in then we are endangering them into thinking that they can ‘believe’ their way to success.

After all, you can keep trying and trying and trying, and still fail. Not because you gave up but because your strategy or technique was not appropriate.

Remember this, gut-busting effort and precise strategy is superior to ability, when ability doesn’t put in a shift.

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