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Stanford professor says praise effort, but not just for effort’s sake

School’s almost out for summer. Along with the arrival of long days at the beach and snacking on mangoes, this signifies the release of end-of-term results. This year, however, praise for A’s, or in preschoolers’ case, for their festive crafts, should come with a twist, believes Stanford University professor Coral Dweck.

Dweck, in her seminal 2006 book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, argued that kids should be praised for their efforts, not their achievements.

The idea is that if we simply reward achievement by saying things like “you’re so clever”, smart kids become complacent, which stymies their future growth. She termed this a ‘fixed mindset’. By contrast, linking effort to achievement, “Poppy, I see how much effort you put into building that sandcastle – it looks magical!” has the opposite effect, and is a ‘growth mindset’.

But with parents and teachers interpreting her work by spouting platitudes like “well done for trying”, she has recently clarified her stance.

Rewarding effort that isn’t attached to a learning-related goal, Dweck stated, is pointless.

And even if there’s an associated aim, say, learning how to solve a maths problem (“well done for trying to solve that problem, I can see you’re almost there”), effort alone might not attain it. Lateral thinking and asking others for assistance are equally crucial.

Dweck is concerned that her effort-first notion, developed to counteract what she deems the ‘failed’ self-esteem movement, is having the reverse impact. By excluding achievement from their praise of kids, adults imply that effort, and thereby self-esteem alone, matters.

To bring the best out of people, she suggests effort be recognised only in relation to achievement. Because logically, you can’t have an excellent sandcastle builder without a sandcastle.

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