Remember when self-esteem was all the rage and we were told that improving it would be the answer to everything wrong with our children? Competitions were frowned upon and everyone got trophies; criticism was replaced with ubiquitous praise, even undeserved praise. From 1970 to 2000 there were over 15,000 scholarly articles written on self-esteem.  The results were often contradictory or inconclusive and only 200 of the studies used a scientific way to measure self-esteem and its outcomes. Upon careful review of those studies, it turns out self-esteem didn’t improve grades or career achievement. It didn’t reduce alcohol usage and it especially didn’t lower violence of any sort. 

However, old habits die hard when it comes to the use of praise to encourage students, perhaps because we heard so much of it growing up and we haven’t figured out what to do instead. One school in East Harlem, Life Sciences Secondary School,  decided to take on this challenge. They divided their students into 2 groups for an eight-session workshop. The control group was taught study skills, and the other group got study skills and a 50-minute lesson on how intelligence is not innate. These students read how the brain grows new neurons when challenged. After the module was completed, the students’ grades were tracked to see if it had any effect. In a single semester, the scores of those in the group that included a lesson on the brain improved while the other group’s scores did not. The teachers – who hadn’t known which students had been assigned to which workshop – could pick out the students who had been taught that intelligence can be developed. They noticed that the study habits of the group that learned about the brain improved.

This is information all of our students would benefit hearing; that the brain is a muscle. Giving it a harder workout makes you smarter.