(1) You can memorize facts and regurgitate them for tests. Does this scenario sound familiar? Your teacher walks up, pats you on the back, and says, “Good job! You are so smart!” You feel good for a few hours, only to be pumped up a bit more when you get home and Mom tells you the same. However, the next time, when you get an 85%, you suddenly do not feel as smart. You feel “dumb.”
(2) You did well on your ACT. Yeah, so did I–big deal. It probably helped you get into a good college, where you most likely spent way more than you should have on higher education. I know I did.
(3) You went to a good college. Are you seeing a trend? Are you picking up on the pattern in my logic here?
I say this now because the world is changing. When I was a kid, it was engrained in me that I needed to get good grades because college was closer than I thought, and that it would be the only way to achieve my goals. For me, this mentality worked really well, because I was a very scared little kid. I listened to almost everything my parents said, especially when it came to school. I was afraid to fail, and I was afraid to underperform in any academic area.
I’m trying to change that with my students, but it is very difficult to help parents undergo this paradigm shift when many of them grew up in a similar time and situation as I did. However, if we continue to apply letter grades to all assignments and we continue to label students as “smart” and “dumb,” kids are going to label themselves as such, creating nothing but a self-fulfilling prophecy and a life of predicted and fulfilled disappointments.
There’s one simple way to fix this. Let’s start labeling kids’ actions, and stop labeling them.
I’ve always been a big believer in the good in people. Everyone is good, but people simply make silly decisions and sometimes do bad things. Likewise, I believe in the intelligence within people. Everyone is intelligent or “smart” in their own way. However, there is a long list of actions that represent this intelligence, and likewise, there is a long list of actions that misrepresent this. Truly, then, it is a waste of breath to label someone as “smart” or “bright,” as it really is telling them nothing.
Now, am I saying to never use these words or variations of them? No, but I am saying we should modify the way we talk so that kids can receive effective feedback and recognize successes and failures in a more constructive manner.
Imagine this scenario:
You are sitting and reading The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane aloud. The beginning of the story is littered with evidence for Edward’s arrogance and selfishness. One of your student’s raises her hand and mentions this idea, the idea that Edward is “mean” or “selfish.” Of course, you respond with, “Great job! You are so smart!” and you confirm this child’s thought, reinforcing the idea that he or she has something innate that makes her intelligent.
Try this instead:
You are sitting and reading The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane aloud. The beginning of the story is littered with evidence for Edward’s arrogance and selfishness.
One of your students raises his or her hand and mentions this idea, the idea that Edward is “mean” or “selfish.”
This time, you respond with, “Wow, that is an interesting inference. I think I agree with you, but can you tell me what you heard in the text that supports that? Why don’t we all talk to a partner and discuss whether or not we agree with [Annie].” In this case, you help to positively reinforce the student’s behavior without labeling them as smart. Instead, you label their thinking, and allow others to partake in their success, simultaneously scaffolding comprehension for other students and allowing you to differentiate for an entire class of learners.
How about this scenario?
You are teaching students how to divide using remainders, specifically in word problems. The problem asks students to divide 36 cupcakes among 8 students.
Your “smartest” student raises his hand almost immediately and says, “I know. It’s four. Each student gets four, and there is a remainder of four left over that can be taken home or given to teachers in the school.”
You respond by saying, “Good job! Let’s move on to number 2.”
Your student feels so happy that he was the one who did the “good job,” while the remainder of your students either don’t understand the correct answer or feel it unfair that they did not receive the “Good Job” stamp.
Next time, do it this way:
You are teaching about division. The problem asks students to divide 36 cupcakes among 8 students. Your “smartest” student raises his hand almost immediately and says, “I know. It’s four. Each student gets four, and there is a remainder of four left over that can be taken home or given to teachers in the school.”
This time, respond by saying, “Tell me how you got that.”
Your student elaborates, telling you, “Well, I know that 8 times 4 is 32, so each student will get four cupcakes. Then 36 minus 32 is 4, so there will be 4 left over that she could take home.”
Then, ask for other solutions. “I see you used your math facts to help you solve this problem–what an effective strategy. Did any one else get a different answer?” You begin to list the other answers, seeing that a few answered 5, many answered similarly to your first student, and one student even answered 4 and a half.
You continue to probe, asking for more explanations, helping students realize along the way that there was an error in their logic and that 8 time 5 gives you 40 instead of 35 like they thought. They realize this on their own, and label their own answer as incorrect. You reply, “I’m glad you were able to see your own error. Now what do you think the answer is?”
The Power of Our Words
Notice that during both of these scenarios, no one was labeled as “smart” and not one student was put on a pedestal. In fact, in some cases, the students who made errors seemed to get more positive attention. In these scenarios, most students feel as though they are equals; they are more likely to learn because the learning is focused around a discussion that labels their actions more objectively, and doesn’t label them very subjectively. This mentality promotes inquiry and discussion, and allows for rather seamless differentiation within one problem or one lesson.
Next time, think twice before calling someone “smart.” You never know the damage you could be doing, and you’ll never know the stimulating conversation you could be missing by doing so.