Expect more, praise less in class

Across Ontario, the academic prowess of schools is being compared and contrasted based on provincial tests in certain subjects. Only one school in Northern Ontario cracked the top 100 of 725 secondary schools across Ontario. In Algoma there was one school ranked in the 200s, and the rest in the 500s.

Two schools in Toronto have been noted for their great leaps of improvement in their score out of ten: Bloor Collegiate Institute jumped from 3.5 out of 10 in 2008 to a 6.6 in 2011. St Patrick Catholic Secondary school went from a low of 2.0 up to 6.1.

This tells us one of two things: that teachers are learning to teach to the tests, or that teachers are getting students to believe they can do better if they work hard. I’d like to think that it is the latter.

I feel like children will only strive to achieve what you expect them to achieve. Unfortunately, that bar seems to be getting lower and lower. School boards are stopping teaching cursive writing. Music and arts programs have been cut to bare bones, along with most extracurricular activities. Children of all ages sound like episodes of Scooby-Doo or valley girls with the number of times they say “like” in a sentence.

On top of the lowering of expectations, competition has been culled. Fitness testing was abolished because some kids might feel bad about not doing well. The self-esteem gurus said that the only way to build kids’ confidence was through praise — and we bought it. In so doing it seems we are grooming a future workforce that expects awards for even showing up at work.

Professor Carol Dweck of Stanford Univeristy studies the learning process and feels that the education system (in the USA) is training students to be non-learners and praise is part of the problem.

To give you a quick overview of her research, Dweck says that people can look at any task or process with one of two mindsets: a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. The fixed mindset assumes that there is no room for improvement: you are smart or you aren’t. “I’m just not good at math,” might be used as an excuse by someone with a fixed mindset to never work on math again.

On the contrary, a growth mindset sees potential for improvement and learning. They understand that hard work is critical and talent is simply a starting block. They know they can get better at math if they work at it.

Through her years of research, Dweck has shown time and again that students with fixed mindsets don’t rebound from failures or hardships. They try to hide failures. They lose confidence and see quitting (and even cheating) as good options. Growth mindsets see mistakes as learning opportunities and simply work harder the next time.

Back to the praise part, if we keep telling children that they are brilliant for things that required little effort, we are training a fixed mindset, where they equate effort as something for people that are not clever. If they have to struggle to solve something, they must not be smart. The choice they are then left with is “Should I work hard and feel stupid or quit while I’m still considered intelligent?” Going outside their comfort zone is not for them, because they may struggle or fail at the new challenge.

Instead, we need to praise the effort not the grade, reward the desire for learning, the strategies used, and struggles to get to a solution. This encourages a growth mindset.

Children (and also parents and teachers) need to know that the brain is a muscle that can get stronger and smarter. You are not born smart or dumb, and even if you are bad at something you can get better at it with hard work.

It seems to me that in those vastly improved Toronto schools a growth mindset is being trained. The expectation is that students can meet the provincial standards, no matter what the demographics of the area. The teachers believe it, and encourage the hard work, the fun of the struggle, and the learning — and the students believe it to.

I’d like to see that happen across the province. I’d like to see us set the bar higher and teach our children that hard work is key to success, and that effort is good.

We don’t want to groom a generation of people that think that they are brilliant, expect constant praise, and are afraid of hard work or new challenges. We need resilient, persistent leaders ready to learn from mistakes and roll up their sleeves to solve problems with creative solutions.

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