Back in 2010 I was introduced to Carol Dweck’s research into fixed and growth mindsets and the scales fell from my eyes. It was an epiphany. A veritable Damascene conversion. And like Saul before me, I quickly became an evangelist.

The basic theory is that folk with growth mindsets will make effort for its own sake and when they encounter setbacks will see them as opportunities for learning. Your fixed mindset is all about success. Failure at a task is seen as evidence of personal failure. Struggle is seen as evidence of lack of ability. This is particularly toxic as hard work is the only real route to mastery, and if hard work is seen as something only losers have to dirty theirs hands with, well, why would you bother?

All this seemed very reasonable and I could see the benefits to teaching students about these mindsets and how to move from fixed to growth. One of the key strategies for encouraging this move is to praise effort rather than ability. Dweck says, “when students were praised for effort, 90 percent of them wanted challenging new tasks they could learn from. ” This is pretty clear, isn’t it? She goes on to say that in contrast to ability praised students who gave up at tasks as they got difficult,  ‘The effort-praised students still loved the problems, and many of them said that the hard problems were the most fun.”

There it is in black and white: if you praise students’ effort it will increase their likelihood of persevering at challenging tasks.

So, like a goodun’ that’s what I’ve been training myself to do. I try to make sure my praise of students is always specific to the task they are engaged in and is focused on bigging them up for sticking with the hard stuff and mastering difficult concepts. And it seemed to be working (although it’s impossible to say for sure as having a control group seemed unethical!) Students seem to have genuinely moved from having a fixed view of their ability to accepting failure and difficulty as part of the normal cycle of learning. I have posters all round my room exhorting them to, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Imagine my surprise when I read this yesterday:

There is now increasing evidence for [the] dilution effect of praise on learning. Kessels, Warnet, Holle & Hannover (2008) provided students with feedback with and without praise; praise led to lower engagement and effort, Kamins and Dweck (1999) compared the effects of praising a person as a whole (for example, “You’re a clever girl”) with the effect of praising a person’s efforts (“You’re excellent in putting in the effort”). Both led to zero or negative effects on achievement. The effects of praise are particularly not when students succeed, but when they begin to fail or not to understand the lesson. Hyland and Hyland (2006) noted that almost half of teachers’ feedback was praise, and that premature and gratuitous praise confused students and discouraged revisions. Perhaps the most deleterious  effect of praise is that it supports learned helplessness: students come to depend on the presence of praise to be involved in their schoolwork. At best, praising effort has a neutral or no effect when students are successful, but is likely to be negative when students are not successful, because this leads to a more ‘helpless or hopeless’ reaction (Skipper & Douglas, 2011).

John Hattie, Visible Learning for Teachers p 121

Well. What are we to make of that?

Is it just me or do Dweck’s earlier research findings directly contradict the claims made in her 2006 book Mindset, the New Psychology of Success? It certainly looks that way, doesn’t it?

If anyone can cast a light on this troubling piece of information, I’d be glad to hear it.

Before anyone tells me otherwise, Hattie does allow that praise is important in making students feel like they ‘belong’ and for there to be a high level of trust between teachers and students. His point is that, “for feedback to be effective in the act of learning, praise dissipates the message.”

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Feedback: it’s better to receive than to give
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