Saturday, April 23, 2016

Instead of Saying, "You're So Smart"

I was pretty surprised by this poster. It was on an office bulletin board. Evidently, it's not a good thing to tell your students how smart they are. It's better to say they did this or that well.

Now I've got no problem saying any or all of the things on this poster. Of course it's good to tell students when they do things well. And of course it's good to acknowledge a positive attitude, something I've come to appreciate more and more in my old age.

Now a few of these things don't sound exactly like me, so I might not use those words. But that's not really my issue here.

I guess my issue is that I don't freely call people smart. I really say that to very few kids. But if I say it, it means I've noticed something very special in them. Kids who think fast, who come back immediately, who aren't afraid to say directly what's on their mind, and who have clever, creative or impressive things on said minds really impress me. I have to tell them how smart they are. I never know whether or not anyone else has told them, whether anyone else has even noticed, and I think they need to know.

Now I'll freely acknowledge that the smartest kids don't always do the smartest things, and don't necessarily have to be the best students either. Some of the most creative and brilliant people I've known have also been among the most self-destructive. You have to imagine that a mind working that fast is never quite at rest. Maybe they should do yoga or meditate or something. I don't know. But I think it's the least I can do, when I notice, to give them credit for this.

Oddly, being smart is probably not entirely an achievement. Kids are born that way, or nurtured that way, or guided that way or something. Just because kids are smart doesn't mean they will pass tests or excel in school, or even in life. Teenagers need guidance just like everyone else, likelier than not more, because it's such a tough stage. But anything you can do to help their fragile self-esteem can help. And when they're smart, when they think as fast or faster than you do, it's really tough to keep them on track. Of course it's kind of our job to do the best we can to help them reach their potential .

Of course you should give students credit for doing a great job. Of course you should encourage excellent work and good achievement. But that's not at all the same as telling kids they are smart. Great positive attitude will take people a long way. Smart people with relentlessly negative attitudes are not precisely the best people to be around.

But I think there's a time and a place for everything. Calling people smart just because they did the homework is kind of lazy on our part.

I'm kind of surprised someone produced a poster that fails to make that distinction. Maybe that person isn't smart enough to be a teacher. On the other hand, maybe that person didn't try hard enough, think deeply enough, or work hard enough to tackle this problem.

Me, I'm not psychic enough to discern which.
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