Education, Parents

The clash of developing a “smart” vs. “hard-working” child

“See – I told you it’d be easy! You’re so smart!”
“See – that was awesome! You tried all kinds of ways until you finally got it!”

With the start of the new school and madrasah[1] year right around the corner in the States, coupled with the updates to educational standards, more teachers are coming under fire for student progress and development. But student progress is a combination of several aspects of his or her life. Homework – as is despised by many students and parents alike – accounts for one of these aspects. And without the direct supervision of a teacher, a parent is sometimes forced to assist the child in answering questions to complete their assignments. It is often this dynamic between independent learning and positive parental attention that can foster the greatest leaps of personal development.

Are you encouraging a growth mindset or a fixed mindset in your child?

Will your child continue to try their best or will they be disappointed and stop when failure meets them?

Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck has researched extensively on the simple idea of “mindset” and how said idea encourages or hinders success. A mindset is a belief of oneself. Dweck, in The New Psychology of Success (2000) developed a continuum on which two ends of ability are distinctly different from one another. People with a “fixed mindset” on one end see success or lack thereof as an innate trait and one that cannot be altered over time except that with age, one’s abilities change and therefore success happens to come, or in some cases, not come. On the other end, people with a “growth mindset” see success as something worked toward, based on persistence, learning, and hard work.

In Modern Ideas About Children, 20th Century Frenchman and creator of the IQ test Alfred Binet protests the idea that “an individual’s intelligence is a fixed quantity”. He encourages “practise, training, and method” and in turn, intelligence can be enhanced alongside attention, memory, and judgment. His research establishes a precursor to Dweck’s work – in that, because practise, training, and alteration of method can raise performance, the environmental factors can also influence the outcomes in academia. As such, outside of the school setting, homework and the features of its practise are considerable influences.

Take this, for example. Ali is a student who gets the answers correct 100% of the time in fiqh[2] and geometry but struggles with creating grammatically correct sentences and tareekh[3]. His maths teacher compliments Ali, “Wow you’re so smart!” and Ali is under the impression that the only way he’s “smart” is if he scores 100%, even in other subjects. His tareekh test paper came back as a 60%. Ali has now lost confidence, is frustrated, and complains to his parents about how much he despises tareekh. See the detrimental chain?

His geometry teacher can instead say “Wow – you got them all correct! Let’s challenge you on tonight’s assignment!” Now, Ali is aware that maths may come easy to him, but compliments aren’t given out because he’s smart. Tomorrow, he is ready to persist with that challenging tareekh project without his parents having to listen to how mean his teacher is to him. Voila!

Dweck explains that the types of encouragement and words used either help or hinder a child’s view of his or her success. Whilst it is commonly thought that praise is beneficial for an individual’s self-esteem and performance, it is detrimental to the individual who has been dealt a set of cards different to which he requires for success. Thus, Dweck encourages the use of praise, but only the type of praise which is controllable[4] by the child.

All this research gibberish aside, what mindset do you as your child’s first teacher encourage? Are you encouraging your child (or student) to continue growing even though s/he’s just tried (and failed) three ways of putting together his Legos or is s/he smart just because it was completed on the first try? Did they grow through what is normally perceived as ‘failure’ or has ‘success’ become an obstruction or reinforced laziness toward pushing on?

Carryover this idea of developing a mindset into other situations – complimenting a little girl on being pretty because of her “gorgeous blue eyes” or the boy with the dark hair at your next appointment in the doctor’s office. What happens if a child with brown eyes is listening on?

The next time you help your child or student with their homework, consider how your choice of words and interactions can push his/her development and overall mindset.

by Sumayya Pirbhai


[1] Madrasah – religious school classes

[2] Fiqh – the study of religious law

[3] Tareekh – study of Islamic history

[4] Controllable in this sense is praise upon the type of skill that can be developed through practise and training.

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