Does too much praise kill our children’s ability to face failure? In the late 90s, Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success and a professor of psychology at Stanford University, conducted a series of experiments on school students in New York to figure out just that.
Dweck gave two groups of fifth graders a test that was easy enough for all kids that age. After the test, children in the first group were praised for their intelligence and told: “You must be smart at these problems”. Students in the other group were praised for their effort and told: “You must have worked really hard.”
In the second round, students were offered a choice of two tests. The first was tougher than that in the first round but students were told it was a challenge they could learn from. The other test would have ensured an error-free performance. At least 90% of those praised for their hard work opted for the difficult test. A large number of those praised for their intelligence chose the easy one.
In the third round, the compulsory test was given. It was not age appropriate and, as anticipated, both groups failed. “But the two groups responded differently. Those praised for their effort on the first test assumed they simply hadn’t focused hard enough on this test. They got very involved, willing to try every solution to the puzzles,” Dweck told the New York Magazine in 2007. “But those who were praised for being smart assumed their failure was evidence that they weren’t really smart at all. Just watching them, you could see the strain. They were sweating and miserable.”
Dweck concluded the study by a final round of test and kept it as easy as the first round. Those who had been praised for their effort improved on their first score by about 30%. Grades of those who were told they were smart fell by nearly 20%.
If our students were to be studied in a similar experiment, the results might be the same. It is not unusual for parents to exhort and convince their kids and put them on display as the smartest. Even our schools are no exception.
To reduce stress on students, the government recently allowed schools to rate kids continuously on the basis of projects, tests and extra-curricular activities rather than make them take an annual board exam. Used to scoring high marks in school tests, only 13% students opted for the optional Class X board exam this year. The result (both school-based and board-based) was a near-99% pass percentage for Class X across India. Some Delhi schools even flaunted 60% of their students in the top bracket of 95% scores or more.
But to clear the Class XII, students must still take the board exam where, this year, the pass percentage was 82% as compared to Class X’s 99%. In Delhi, the 2.7% overall top bracket results at class X also slipped to 0.7% at the class XII board exam. Of course, it gets difficult to score as one proceeds to higher standards, but this drop in overall performance in two years does tell us something about how we bring up our kids.
Teachers and parents are the best judge of their wards’ aptitude, interests and capabilities. It is criminal to induce a false sense of academic expectation by awarding undeservingly high marks at school. Every XII board result is followed by a spate of suicides.
Then, a few more give up after failing to make the cut for their choicest courses at the Delhi University. Yet, we keep assuring our children of their imaginary gifts, sheltering them in a make-believe world of warranted success. If we really want them to be competitive, we must let them fail early in life.