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.

Growth mindset

How a toddler can teach you about failure

I remember hearing it around my daughter’s first birthday. She had just started to walk and the phrase reared its head. It comes from relatives, friends and sometimes even strangers.

“Aren’t you a clever girl?”

I know. It sounds like I am belittling the milestone event of my daughter successfully walking for the first time. But there are two parts to that previous sentence which underpin my belief on this subject.

The first part is ‘milestone’. It means to place a stone to mark the distance on the route to a particular place. So now we know two things. My daughter’s milestone of walking is neither the start nor the end of her journey. She didn’t just wake up at this destination in her developmental journey. She had been somewhere else, somewhere further back down the road. And she was still heading further up the road.

The second part is ‘first time’. In the sentence I said “successfully walking for the first time”. Let’s be clear. On this particular occasion, she successfully walked for the first time. That tells us something very important about how children learn and develop. If she successfully walked for the first time – there must have been occasions where she unsuccessfully walked.

And you’ve guessed it. There were. In fact, there were hundreds, maybe even thousands, of times where she unsuccessfully walked. But with each passing day and another tally of unsuccessful attempts to walk, she made slight improvements. She showed better balance, better posture, increased strength and the same, or sometimes increased, desire to succeed.

The clever bit isn’t the fact that she walked successfully on this one occasion. The real success can be found in the level of determination she showed over a sustained period of time and how she was able to use multiple failures to eventually form a pathway to success.

Here is what we can take away as educators – success is a process. It is a journey that happens over time.

The fact that so many people said to her over and over “Aren’t you clever?” shows that often we are guilty of forgetting this. The reason for this is because many adults have been hardwired by society to believe that the main currency for being successful is being right. And being right means we are clever. That getting things wrong means looking foolish or embarrassed.

The real truth is: nobody has ever learned anything from being right all of the time.

By accepting and owning your mistakes and faults you automatically have an advantage over anyone who denies they exist in the first place. This could come in the guise of accepting the good with the bad for a particular lesson you have taught, or initiative you have rolled out. Performing a ‘lessons learned’ activity (or a post-mortem) on a lesson, initiative or event will help identify any mistakes or failings and ensure that you can take positive action to improve them in the future.

The mistakes we have made in the past do not have to impact on our future. Very often, previous failures and the worry of not looking clever and being wrong can force us into future inaction. The internal voice we all use to talk ourselves tells us: “I tried that once before. I didn’t get it right that time. I won’t try again in case I get it wrong. If I get it wrong I won’t look clever.”

We often predict how the future will go based on what has happened before – and then build desire lines to reinforce these thoughts. But here’s the amazing thing that I’m guessing you already know: nobody can predict the future.

The past is history. The future is a mystery.

What if we start acknowledging and accepting mistakes happen, take responsibility for them and not cover them up, and then move on and not dwell on them?

This shift in thinking and attitude can change the practice of school leaders, especially when giving feedback to staff. Suddenly, instead of telling teachers that a particular aspect of their lesson wasn’t quite up to scratch, we can empower them to identify their mistakes themselves and help them move on.

In my experience I have sometimes felt that teachers have been told something wasn’t good enough, so the teacher tries to cover up or blame someone else for the mistake or failing. The first step to learning from mistakes is simply to acknowledge that they happen.

Mistakes – accept and acknowledge they exist, take responsibility for them, and move on.