Randall was always told he was "smart." In math class, his teachers celebrated his correct answers, and he grew to expect this type of success. Then, in 4th grade, Randall started to encounter math problems that he couldn't figure out. He was angry. He felt foolish. His teacher said "You tried hard - that's okay." But it wasn't okay. Randall put down his pencil and closed his book. Randall gave up.
How and what we praise matters. In a growth mindset approach, we want our students to know that effort is important. But effort must be supported by practices that encourage learning and growth. As Carol Dweck says, "Students need to try new strategies and seek input from others when they're stuck. They need this repertoire of approaches–not just sheer effort–to learn and improve."
Watch this short video that shows the dramatic effect of different approaches to student praise:
What if you tried this?
Praise needs substance. Instead of praising general ideas like "intelligence" or "effort", consider giving students feedback that leads to action:
"I like that you used this strategy: ... Can you explain that to me?"
"You made some very interesting mistakes. Let's take a look at them to see what we can learn."
"Let's talk about your work. Can you justify your solution to me with words or a model?"
"This is good work so far. I wonder what would happen if..."
Your goal, when offering praise, is acknowledging successful strategies and persistence, but also providing ways for students to extend their understanding of mathematics.
Change Isn't Easy
New behaviors take time. Be patient with yourself and your students. Check out this short video that shows an actual classroom that uses some of the ideas discussed above. When you praise students for little successes, you will be giving them feedback they can act on. In time, they will feel more confident and ready to take on more challenges.