Wednesday, November 30, 2011

What's so Bad about "Smart?"

I once had a student tell me they were not smart.  They would never get good grades, that they would never be a success. This 4th grader, already beaten down by the school system and themselves, thought they would never be successful.  That school was for kids that got it, for kids that already understood, for kids that were born smart.  Smart was not something you became, it was something you already were, and it was completely outside of their reach.

How many of these kids walk our hallways?  Those kids that no one ever told they were smart?  Those students that come into our classrooms thinking that they are not smart, have never been, and will never be.  Beaten down by lack of success in an overly rigid school system, having few academic successes and little curiosity left.  Those students need to hear the word "smart."

Research tells us that we shouldn't use the word "smart," that students instead should be heralded for their work ethic, their creative problem-solving skills and their perseverance.  The evidence shows (simply stated) that if you tell a child repeatedly that they are smart they will take the easy way out, give up more easily and not like challenges. But those students that already have given up?  Those students need to hear it over and over when they do have successes so that they can start believing it.  So for those I make an exception.

I tell them they are smart when they conquer a math problem, when they raise their hand timidly at first but then more and more confidently.  I tell them that they can do it, that they too know things when they grow, when they share.  So that they can believe that they are worth something, that they are capable, that they are smart.  And I don't regret it, no matter what the research says, because later on we can work on the creative problem-solving skills and never giving up, but for now; they need to believe they are smart.


Kari Weston said...

Wouldn't demonstrating strengths in "work ethic, creative problem-solving skills and perseverance" make someone 'smart'? Perhaps the time has come to redefine what 'smart' really means, especially in our schools/classrooms.

It saddens me to think there are still educators who seemingly operate from a place where 'smart' is something that you are. Darn that 'research'!

Imagine the possibilities if we all worked from the mindset that smart is something that you become - young and grown people alike!

Thank you for giving me something to think about that's smart - kiss your brain!

Mark said...

Since you've read the research, you're obviously aware of the pitfall of telling a child, "you're smart", primarily that the child will then be less willing to persevere on difficult tasks for fear of appearing/being not smart. Your heart is obviously in the right place, but why not say something more like, "Wow! You did some amazing thinking right there!" instead?

Jeff said...

Ditto what Mark said... Studies show kids who are labeled 'hard workers' continue to try much longer than kids labeled 'smart'. After all, if 'smarts' are something you have (intrinsically), you can't get more. But if you are a hard worker, you can always work more.

Mrs Ripp aka @pernilleripp said...

Yet my point with this post is that there are students who do not ever hear they are smart and they present us with a different problem; lack of belief in themselves. If they do not believe that they can indeed become smart through hard work etc then it does not matter how many times I tell them they are creative.

Cristina said...

I avoid using words that might be descriptive of the children's intelligence, and always relate the feedback to the task and how the student performed(e.g. "I find your approach interesting.Could you tell me more about...").
Regardless of its seemingly positive impact, the word "smart" - or other similarly loaded words - conveys the idea that there are "stupid" children out there as well (which is completely untrue).

Mrs Ripp aka @pernilleripp said...

I love this discussion as it is really making me think as well. I don't agree with if we tell a child that they are smart who has never heard it before that they will assume others kids then must be stupid. Smart is not a competitive word to me, but rather something a child needs to believe in themselves. This is not the only emphasis when I give my students feedback but for some students they do need to hear the word intelligent or smart or whatever you choose so that they can move away from thinking they are indeed stupid.

Marty said...

Might I suggest, perhaps, that we never call someone smart. Instead, convey to them what you observe them doing. (Like Cristina said, I find your approach interesting. Could you tell me more about..." or You passed the ball to your teammate at the soccer game and she scored a goal. I've noticed you have been working really hard at that).

If students are not hearing enough positive affirmations, then it is something we need to get better at doing. That 'lack of belief' in self needs to be reframed and nurtured by us. There is no one-way to do that. You do well at having conversations with your kids. You just had a great dialogue with your students about grades. Perhaps, they would be up for a conversation about this. Starting with WHAT they like to do. Or, what they ENJOY doing. One thing at home. One thing at school. What does it look like? What does it sound like? What does it feel like? Then help to teach the Expectation to one another. That way the student comes from a perspective of if they can do well in this then with some persistence at something that is challenging they can get better. I have found that this helps students to feel capable and worthy.

Awesome dialogue going on here by the way. Wish we could be all gathered around together having this conversation. I think we are on the same page on this issue. Thanks for the post.

Ann and Celina said...

I would agree that this is a great discussion, and that we are all thinking in the best interest if children. I personally do not like the word smart used in a general sense as a compliment, because I do perceive that if students do not continue to receive this recognition as feedback they begin to feel as though they are not. Assessment and feedback needs to be specific to what we are observing, especially since we are ALL intelligent in our own unique way. However, I completely understand Pernille's stance. Some students do not believe they are smart, period. They need to be told specifically because NO ONE has told them before, or because the way that they have received feedback in the past made them believe they weren't. The word should not become taboo. That itself puts a negative connotation on the topic.... We need to reach students and make them believe they are capable, and sometimes this requires a direct statement of 'You are a very smart student with a brilliant mind and I believe in you.'

Jeff Richardson said...

I have one of "those" kids in my own home. He would echo exactly what your example student said and it really is a shame. I will say that finally this year-his 7th year in school-he's starting to see his potential and realize that he is "smart." It's amazing at the difference that has made in his view of school and going every day. He actually enjoys it now which is more than can say for years past. A true shame BUT at least he's proof that we can change kids' perceptions of themselves and what "smart" really is. Thanks for the post! Well written.

Mrs Ripp aka @pernilleripp said...

Thank you Jeff for your personal story and Ann and Celina for being more eloquent than me! Yesterday a student told me they were not smart and I told them that smart was something you become and not something you are born with. She looked at me like I was crazy and went about her business. These kids are figuring out the stigma of the word somewhere so I am certainly not going to ban it in my classroom, all kids should feel smart.


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