How to (p)raise successful kids

About a year ago, Carol Dweck, a researcher at Stanford, published a video on YouTube explaining some of her research over the past few years that suggests praising students for innate abilities, such as intelligence, will give them a fixed mindset and stunt their ability to fulfill their true potential, while praising them for the process they use to accomplish tasks will give them a growth mindset, where learning is valued throughout adult life.

The video has been viewed nearly half a million times, and we present it here in order to help parents understand what happens to learning in all children.

First, a fixed mindset is one in which a child (or an adult) has a primary goal of looking good; a growth mindset, on the other hand, is one in which a child has a primary goal of learning.

For example, a kid with a fixed mindset would tend to think Albert Einstein accomplished great things mainly because he was smart, while a kid with a growth mindset would tend to believe Einstein accomplished those great things because he dedicated himself to his work, despite failures along the way. Kids with a fixed mindset in certain traits see effort and failure as a bad thing, indicating that people lack some ability or intelligence if they have to work hard at something; kids with a growth mindset in those traits view failure and effort as a good thing, just part of the process of learning.

As a result of the mindset differences, Ms Dweck explains, kids with a fixed mindset tend to avoid difficult tasks, because they might fail, which will only make them look bad. Then, when they do eventually have to do something hard in life, they brush it off by saying things like, “It’s boring.” Kids with a growth mindset then leave those with a fixed mindset behind, simply because a growth mindset leads kids to rise to challenges, even if there’s an initial failure.

How to encourage a growth mindset

Parents, take heed of this research. Coaches, take heed of this research. Whenever we reward kids for just showing up, we aren’t rewarding the process, and that type of praise tends to promote a fixed mindset. Celebrating winners or students who succeed with flying colors not for their innate ability but because of how much effort they put into the learning process will tend to promote a growth mindset.

“So, with praise, focus on ‘process praise.’ Focus on the learning process and show how hard work, good strategies, and good use of resources lead to better learning. Be matter-of-fact, with not too strong or too passive a reaction,” Ms Dweck said.

One of the best saxophone solos I’ve ever heard in a marching band performance was given by Noah Khan at Hebron High School in Carrollton, Texas, at the 2015 Bands of America Grand National Championships. I talked to him about his solo, and he revealed a strong tendency toward a growth mindset, which is no doubt why his performance was as good as it was.


Mr Khan performs his sax solo, November 2015 (Voxitatis)

Mr Khan said the first minute and a half of his solo was written out, but the remainder was based on improvisation. “I was able to figure out the chords, with my directors, and I just tried different things: I applied different licks, different scales, like pentatonic, to figure out what sounded good. If I found something that worked, I would stick with it.”

The quote above, for those who might not catch it, represents a growth mindset: He acknowledges the problem-solving strategy and the processes he employed to bring the level of his performance higher. The solo ends with a dramatic high note that soars over, with the help of a mic, a band of 275 performers.

“I tried a couple different high notes at that wailing part,” he said. Lots of notes failed, in other words. Again, failure is not a bad thing; it’s just a key part of the process. “And the one that we figured out that worked, I would have to practice that 50 to 75 times a day, just to make sure that happened every time during a performance.”

Then, he told me about the times it didn’t work, including one time right before he came with his band to Indianapolis.

During a preview show for parents, one of the props got dropped on his head during the solo. Marching band performances are timed to the second in order to avoid timing penalties in the score, so even when mistakes or accidents happen, performers have no choice but to keep the show moving.

“I just thought, keep going, keep going,” he said. “But I could see everyone around me wincing, like, oh gosh, what should we do? I just kept going with it, and it turned out OK.”

And this is why he succeeds. He takes failures in stride, as they are just part of the process of learning. I can’t imagine how much learning occurred in that one instance of failure, but I would venture a guess it’s more than occurred during even one time where someone just praised him for innate sax-playing ability.

Teachers, like his director Andy Sealy, know to praise kids for the process and the problem-solving strategies they use to get ever closer to their potential.

Mr Sealy said his students “were super happy with their performance, and they were proud of the product they put out on the field and proud of their finals run. And that, we always tell them, is more important than what a bunch of judges say. It’s how they feel about themselves and their responsibility to each other in a performance situation and how they deliver that.

“The marching season is a long one, and we’ve got to go all the way to the final bell no matter what, to keep learning and getting stronger. And I’m really proud of them for that experience. Now it’s up to us as adults and them as student leaders to figure out how to make this a transformative experience for our organization all the way around.”

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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