You Are NOT Smart

brainIn my last (which was my first) post, I talked about labels. Telling someone that they are smart is labeling, wouldn’t you agree? That is a positive label, so what harm could that possibly do? Now, before I go any further, let me tell you that I am the #1 guilty party in this room! I, too, thought that telling someone that they are smart (namely, my daughter) could only boost their ego and self-esteem. What I didn’t realize was the harm that it could actually do.

In Dr. Carol Dweck’s book Mindset, she tells about the danger of praise and positive labels. She did a study where hundreds of students were given a set of ten fairly difficult problems from a nonverbal IQ test. They did well and were praised. Some were praised for their ABILITY (“You are smart!), and some were praised for their EFFORT (“You worked hard!”). What was the difference? The students praised for their effort weren’t made to feel that they had some special gift; they were praised for doing what it takes to succeed. What do you think happened?

The students that were praised for their ability fell into the fixed mindset. They feared any task that could make them look unintelligent. On the other hand, 90% of the students who were praised for their effort looked forward to a challenging task. When these same students were given some hard new problems, the ability students now thought that they were not smart. The effort students looked at it as they just needed to apply more effort. They didn’t see it as failure.

“Since this was a kind of IQ test, you might say that praising ability lowered the students’ IQs. And that praising their effort raised them.” (Dweck, 2005) (Bold emphasis mine)

I don’t know about you, but this hit me square in the eye! I am guilty of telling students (and my daughter), “Oh, my goodness! You are so smart!” Since reading Mindset, I now pay attention to WHAT I praise in a person.

It goes hand-in-hand with behavior/discipline. We want to separate the child from the behavior. If the child misbehaves, we tell them, “I love you. I do not love your behavior.” With praising ability, it is the child. With praising effort, it is the behavior. By praising the effort we are giving the opportunity for the person to have a growth mindset. Isn’t it amazing how powerful our words are?

Reflect for a minute on how you praise your students. Your own children. Yourself. Are you praising the ability or the effort?

Let me know your thoughts!



(2005). MindSet: A Book written by Carol Dweck. Teaching a growth … Retrieved August 18, 2014, from

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