Praise the effort – but let’s do it the right way

Praising effort has become the rage in education – all in the name of Growth Mindsets.

The argument goes like this: If we praise students for their ability or achievements, we detract from the importance of their efforts. So, “Great work!” is out. So are, “You’re so clever!” and “You’re a natural at this.”

By focusing on who students are and what they did, rather than how they did it, we contribute to the development of a Fixed Mindset.

The alternative, we are told, is to praise “effort”. “Great effort!” is supposed to be a way of praising students for how they go about achieving growth and learning.

The trouble is that not all effort is great. In fact, some of it is ordinary and may not lead to growth and learning at all.

When Professor Carol Dweck advocated praising effort, I believe she was trying to focus attention on the behaviors that lead to growth. It is, after all, a Growth Mindset – not an Effort Mindset.

It’s essential that we don’t lose sight of the fact that growth is what we are trying to achieve. Dweck was pointing out that we should attribute that growth to what a student does – not to who they are.

Not all effort is created equal

The sort of effort we should praise is effort that leads to growth. When effort does not result in growth, when we confuse effort with time and energy, we must re-direct students towards the type of effort that does produce growth.

To explore this idea, I have created the Effective Effort Matrix. This matrix considers the skillfulness of students’ learning behaviors, as well as the process those behaviors are applied to.

effective-effort-matrix

Let’s take a moment to consider the axes before we look at the four types of effort.

The Behaviours axis describes the actions students take in learning situations. Art Costa and Bena Kallick[1] describe these as Habits of Mind.

Highly effective learners have well-developed Habits of Mind, which they apply skillfully and mindfully when confronted with challenging tasks. The more difficult and complex a task is, the more highly developed your Habits of Mind must be to succeed at it.

The Process axis draws on the pioneering work of Anders Ericsson[2]. Naive Practice, so called because people often engage in it with the incorrect belief that it will result in growth, typically does not involve any intellectual stretch. It is unfocused and undirected. Rehearsal is an example of Naive Practice. Simply repeating or rehearsing something you’ve already mastered is unlikely to result in growth.

Virtuous Practice is a term I use to capture both Deliberate and Purposeful practice – the types of practice that Ericsson describes as having the virtue of leading to growth. Virtuous Practice occurs slightly beyond one’s current level of competence in the Zone of Proximal Development. It is highly focused on small, incremental learning outcomes.

Four types of effort

Low Effort: Taking the easy road

When students work on tasks that are too easy for them, often in ways that require only basic skills, they are engaging in Low Effort. Because the work is easy, the quality is likely to be high with few errors. The student may be concentrating or otherwise “busy”, but they aren’t learning anything new and they aren’t being challenged.

It’s unlikely that significant learning will result from this effort. Mistakes are likely to be “sloppy mistakes”[3] with low learning potential. If we praise this sort of effort, we encourage students to continue to underperform.

Performance Effort: Doing your best

Students applying Performance Effort are doing their best, most reliable and reproducible work. Energy and skill levels are high. It’s the sort of effort appropriate in performance situations (eg. exams and exhibitions).

However, students engaged in Performance Effort are not in their Zone of Proximal Development. This means they don’t experience the intellectual stretch required to grow. Mistakes in this context are generally avoided. As a result, Performance Effort tends not to lead to significant growth.

Ineffective Effort: Working hard, but getting nowhere

Students applying Ineffective Effort are being challenged and spending lots of energy. But they lack the skills to meet the challenge. They are “working hard”, but to little effect.

Students engaged in Ineffective Effort can become frustrated with their learning. If they have been surrounded with Growth Mindset messages in the classroom, they may start saying, “I can’t do this yet.” If teachers don’t help these students develop more effective learning strategies and Habits of Mind, “I can’t do this yet” may become “I still can’t do this yet!”

Unfortunately, this sort of effort is often praised as a “consolation prize”[4]. When we can’t praise students for growth and achievement, it’s tempting to praise them for “trying their best”. The problem is that if “their best” isn’t resulting in actual growth, they will eventually learn that they can’t grow, and they will develop a Fixed Mindset.

Effective Effort: Growth and learning

Effective Effort is the kind of effort I believe Dweck was referring to when she encouraged teachers to praise effort.

Effective Effort is targeted just beyond a student’s current level of performance, in terms of behaviors and understanding. It is designed to lead to the growth that underpins the Growth Mindset.

Mistakes made when engaged in Effective Effort are “stretch mistakes”. This means they have high learning potential. Stretch Mistakes identify learning needs at a critical point where we are capable of making the small adjustments required for incremental growth. In other words, they act as signposts on a path towards future growth.

Students engaged in Effective Effort make regular, incremental growth in their learning. They recognize that their behaviors (efforts) lead to growth. As a result, they are more likely to develop the understanding that they are capable of change and responsible for their own growth – a Growth Mindset.

Effective Effort is the sort of effort that is truly worthy of the praise, “Great effort!”

How should we praise effort?

The problem with indiscriminately praising “effort” is that it’s too vague. It’s easily confused with Low Effort, Performance Effort and Ineffective Effort.

We need to ensure our “effort praise” is consistently directed towards the right sort of effort – Effective Effort.

In short, we need to do what Carol Dweck has advocated: praise the behaviors that lead to growth. We simply need to be more careful about the way we do it. That way, students will learn to recognize and engage in the kind of effort that leads to growth, and develop a Growth Mindset.

[1] Costa, A., Kallick, B., (eds) (2006) Leading and learning with Habits of Mind. ASCD, Alexandria, VA
[2] Ericsson, K.A. & Pool, R. (2016) Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise. Bodley Head, UK
[3] Mistakes are not all created equal: http://blog.mindsetworks.com/entry/mistakes-are-not-all-created-equal
[4] How praise became the consolation prize: https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/12/how-praise-became-a-consolation-prize/510845/

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