Stop Praising Kids for Being Smart

Stop Praising Kids for Being Smart

(It does them a huge disservice)

Illustration Credit: Everyone thought Leonard was a boy genius but Rupert the imaginary bear actually built the do-nothing by Matte Stephens

I’m a middle-school writing teacher in a high-poverty, high-violence neighborhood in Philadelphia. I’m fascinated with student motivation because my most successful students are rarely my most intelligent students. Every year the pattern repeats: While my students with the quickest wit and best memories often start the school year with the best essays, most creative stories, and highest test scores, my most determined and studious students end the year producing superior work with the highest overall grades. Why is it that the most persevering students gradually overshadow the students with the greatest potential? I began to learn that not only are intelligence and motivation very different factors, they are in many ways opposites. As educators, parents, and citizens, we need to be more concerned that our children are motivated and to worry less about intelligence.

What Is intelligence?

Robert Sternberg, Professor of Human Development at Cornell University and a guru of intelligence research, notes, “There seem to be almost as many definitions of intelligence as there are experts asked to define it.” Disagreement over the nature of intelligence may force us to question the usefulness of such a construct. There are hundreds of nuanced approaches to defining intelligence, yet there are just two components common to most theories:

(1) Intelligence is domain-general

Intelligence tests attempt to capture a central reasoning and thinking capacity without attention to the subject area, whether it is math, chess, or music. In fact, the whole idea of intelligence is predicated on the idea that it is a faculty outside context and situation. It is domain-general rather than domain-specific. For example, one of my very intelligent students may be the first to finish a novel in my class, as well as label a map of the fifty states in history class and ace her math quiz.

Intelligence tests can be made up of Raven’s Matrices, word analogies, word recall cues, and more. They require subjects to find patterns, connections, and anomalies in arbitrary and contrived problems: intelligence tests are fundamentally and necessarily acontextual. This has led some to claim, rather paradoxically, that intelligence should be defined as what is measured by intelligence because intelligence tests are not biased toward any individual with a particular interest or talent.

(2) You cannot prepare for intelligence tests

Since intelligence tests are meant to reflect the strength of a purely acontextual mental faculty, questions that favor a person with a specific interest become problematic. If such a test overly favors crossword puzzle skills, the intelligence test reflects more of a specific ability (solving crossword puzzles) and less of a general ability (intelligence). The more an intelligence test indicates a domain-specific ability, the less it indicates a domain-general ability. To most effectively capture this acontextual capability, no intelligence test allows a subject to study or prepare.

As a teacher, encouraging intelligence seems ludicrous. I would not teach in one of the nation’s most underfunded school districts if I did not care about the future success of my students, but I’m not concerned with the quality of their general reasoning ability. I want my students to feel passionate about ideas. I want them to find jobs that are personally enriching and financially stable. I want them to feel the exhilaration of setting an exceptionally challenging goal and finally reaching it. I want my students to be motivated more than I want them to be intelligent.

Understanding Motivation

Motivation is generally defined as the strength and nature of a person’s commitment to reaching a goal. While society places a high emphasis on being intelligent, research continually demonstrates that motivation is a more accurate predictor of income, academic grades, and occupational success than an individual’s score on intelligence tests. Motivation frameworks, like intelligence theories, are united by two assumptions:

(1) Motivation is domain-specific

Unlike intelligence, motivation varies by context. Someone motivated to keep a clean kitchen may not be motivated to join a gym. The gritty guitarist may fall asleep in math class. Since motivation varies by person and situation, it has two important dimensions. Motivation can be a quantity: some people have more or less motivation to study for a science test. Motivation can also be a quality: some people are motivated to study for a science test because they love science and want to be doctor, while others study for it because they love getting straight As. The domain (studying for a science test in this case) elicits a degree of motivation and a reason behind such effort.

(2) You can prepare for domain-specific tasks

If intelligence is how well you succeed at something without preparation, then motivation is how well you succeed at something when you can prepare. Self-control, resiliency in the face of setbacks, and even higher levels of happiness are found in individuals engaged in a highly motivating task. In fact, psychological research continually shows that when measures of motivation are pitted against intelligence tests to better predict grades or graduation, motivation wins.

The Important Difference

To my dismay, I will always have highly intelligent students who will never do homework and who sleep during class yet manage to ace a test. In contrast, students of mine who have opted to write essays asserting their own theory of ethics or replacing America’s punitive prison system with Norway’s rehabilitative prison system have been highly motivated. They are willing to research what they don’t know, seek out feedback, and take extra measures to make sure their assignments exceed expectations. I’m not a psychologist, but as a teacher, I know intelligence does not explain the amazing work some of my students do. Motivation does. Too often I hear parents, teachers, and friends praise students for being smart or intelligent, which does those children a disservice. Their success in life will be based on their elbow grease and grit, which is exactly what we should be celebrating.

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