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I was always one of the "smart" kids in my class - at least from the time that I made it into the top reading group in third grade. I don't mean that I was good in everything. I needed two years to finish the first John Thompson Little Fingers piano book that took my next brother six weeks.
After seven years of three-times-a week Hebrew school I could read haltingly, and had a vocabulary of less than 100 words. That Hebrew also had verbs, and that those verbs could be conjugated and have various tenses would have been a major shock.
Nor did being labeled "smart," especially a smart boy, always sit easily. My classroom pranks and jokes, designed to prove I was normal, made me a frequent visitor to the principal's office.
The two other "smart boys" in the class and I boasted about who did less homework - partly to prove who was smarter, but also in part to avoid being labeled the '60s equivalent of nerds. Protecting my image turned out to be very limiting. As soon as my younger brothers could beat me in chess - about the time they learned how to move the pieces - I gave up the game. So too with bridge.
By the time I reached college, I was proficient at avoiding subjects for which I had no particular aptitude - e.g., calculus, foreign languages. Taking music or art appreciation wasn't even a question.
WITH THIS background, I read with interest a recent piece in New York Magazine titled "How Not to Talk to Your Kids" by Po Bronson, describing the work of Stanford professor Carol Dweck. Much of Dweck's work deals with the impact of different types of praise.
Contrary to popular belief and practice, she discovered that praising children for being smart often has a deleterious impact on educational achievement. Praising them for effort, by contrast, has a positive effect. Children who are praised from an early age for their native intelligence often become obsessed with protecting their image as "smart." They tend to give up easily when they are intellectually challenged or do not grasp things immediately. They also come to devalue effort and to view working hard as a contradiction to their image of as "smart kids."
Ultimately, too much praise for their native intelligence can even cause them to underestimate their own abilities. Because they downplay the importance of effort, they may conclude that their failure to understand anything immediately proves that the earlier praise was unjustified.
In one fascinating experiment, Dweck and her team gave two groups of kids a puzzle to do. After completing the puzzle, one group was told, "You must be smart at this." The other group was told, "You must have worked really hard." That single sentence was the only difference between the two groups.
Next the two groups were offered a choice: They could try another, more difficult puzzle, from which they were told they would learn a lot; or do a second puzzle at an equal level of difficulty. A majority of those praised for being smart opted for the easier puzzle. Over 90% of those praised for their effort chose the more difficult puzzle.
In a subsequent test, both groups were given a puzzle way above their grade level to work on. Those who had been praised for their effort kept plugging away, and even spontaneously expressed their enjoyment in trying to figure out the puzzle. Those who had been praised for their intelligence, however, began sweating at the first signs of difficulty and generally looked miserable.
Finally, the two groups were given a third puzzle as easy as the first. The performance of those who had received a single sentence of praise for effort improved 30% over the first test, while that of those who had been praised for their intelligence actually declined 20%. In another set of experiments, Dweck's team tested students on two puzzles. Between the first and second test, they were offered the choice of learning a new puzzle strategy or finding out how they ranked compared to others. Those praised for intelligence chose knowing their rank on the first test; those praised for effort chose to learn a new strategy.
IN SHORT, image maintenance takes precedence over actual learning for those praised for their natural ability. In another test, students were asked to fill out their own report card, which they were told would be sent to an anonymous student at another school. Even though they were told that they would never meet the anonymous student, 40% of those praised for their intelligence inflated their actual scores, compared to almost none of those praised for effort.
Teaching kids that effort makes a difference turns out to be one of the most important educational lessons.
Dweck and a colleague divided up 700 under-achieving minority students into two groups. Both groups were given seven sessions on improved study habits. But one group also received a 50-minute session on how the brain is a muscle - the more one uses it, the stronger it becomes.
Teachers were immediately able to identify which students had received the module on the power to increase one's intelligence. And within three months that group had reversed its pattern of declining math scores.
The most common educational message in haredi schools is one that Dweck would approve: "Nothing can stand before the will." Though the saying is neither rabbinic nor literally true, the message that one is not defined by his or her native intelligence is a crucial one. And it is reinforced by many stories of great scholars who overcame early weaknesses with phenomenal diligence.
DWECK'S FINDINGS about the limiting aspects of being marked as "smart" resonate with me. Not until I came to Israel after law school did I ever experience the pleasure of studying a subject only for itself. For the first time, I was not competing. In ulpan, it did not make any difference if everyone in the class spoke Hebrew better than I did as long as I too learned to speak.
But the real joy of learning did not come until a few years later, when I first started studying Talmud. My first study partner in yeshiva told me about 10 minutes after we began, "I'm not quick, like you." Yet within six weeks, he was elevated to a higher class, while I remained behind for many months.
When I expressed surprise at this turn of events, an acquaintance gave me the sharpest reproof I had ever received: "The difference between the two of you," he said, "is that Mordechai is studying God's word; you're still worried about being first in your class."
Only then did I begin make any progress in Talmud learning. And the way that Torah only reveals its secrets only to those who dedicate themselves to understanding God's will became, for me, one of the "proofs" of its Divine origin.
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