A recent article in Scientific American reveals that the key to raising smart kids is to not tell them they’re smart. Many parenting experts today agree: when praising children for strong academic performance, parents should focus on process, not on the result. For example, if the child solved a particularly difficult math problem, praise them for how they got the answer, not the fact that they got the answer. Underlying this theory is that intelligence is not innate, but rather a function of effort and perseverance. These are the traits that should be encouraged. Children who were led to believe that they just weren’t smart would not show any perseverance, assume they were never going to be smart, and would just stop trying.

I’ve always believed that there is no such thing as a “dumb child”. Every child is smart; it’s just a matter of bringing that smartness out of them, by encouraging effort and hard work (and this doesn’t even take into account the fact that every child comes from different life circumstances, which of course heavily impact their motivation and ability to learn).  I’ve heard more than one parent of an autistic child say, “I know it’s in there somewhere; we just had to find a way to draw it out.” (so huge kudos to special needs educators who can achieve this; I’ve seen results first-hand, and it is the most awe-inspiring thing).

This comes back to the stark reality that every child learns differently, and therefore needs to be taught differently, a realization that has only come to light recently by school boards here in Ontario, Canada. But let’s be real: for all the talk about how education reform may be heading the way of individualized learning for success, it’s extremely challenging to actually accomplish this. In a public education system, there will never be enough funds to sustain this kind of learning model. Class sizes will never be where they need to be; we’d have to build a lot more schools and hire a lot more educators, and what taxpayer is going approve of that spend?

Growing up, my parents had expectations that I would excel in school. To my knowledge, there wasn’t any supporting reason for that. I hadn’t demonstrated any particular genius abilities in my pre-school days – I could barely speak a word of English when I started school. But for whatever reason, I was a high achiever. I don’t remember my parents ever praising my process, but always praising the grades. Part of that was because of language: my parents did not speak English and were not able to help me with homework. I was lucky enough to have an older brother who was incredibly intelligent and always forced me to look at ways to get to an answer – he made me really think a problem through. Maybe that was the difference.

What I find interesting  is how this process theory related to me from an athletics standpoint. I was never strong in athletics, and never interested in physical education. I didn’t really understand its purpose. If I failed at any one physical activity, I never wanted to do it again and would avoid it if I could, which pretty much left me with nothing to be interested in. I believed that if I wasn’t good at any activity, I just didn’t have it in me and therefore, I should just move on, instead of thinking, “How can I be good at this?” or “What techniques could I learn to get better at this?” I do recall that in my final year of high school, Phys.Ed. had more of a learning and theory component to it – it was more than just “throw the ball”, it was “how to throw this ball” or “what muscles are being used when you throw the ball this way”. Interestingly, that’s when I actually developed a twinge of interest in physical activity, because I understood that there was a process to reach the end game. I found myself more motivated and more willing to participate.

Learning in the classroom has come a long way. In my day, I don’t recall ever learning about strategies to solve a math problem; you either got the answer or you didn’t. Today, in watching how DQ solves problems, it’s clear that the approach is all about how you get to an answer. With older elementary school children, even if the child knows the answer on a math test, they will not get a mark unless they show how they got that right answer. That’s great progress. It forces critical thinking, which is a life skill regardless of whether the answer is right or wrong.