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The learning myth: Why I'll never tell my son he's smart

By Sal Khan
Khan Academy video wrapper
You can learn anythingSee video transcript
My 5-year-­old son has just started reading. Every night, we lie on his bed and he reads a short book to me. Inevitably, he’ll hit a word that he has trouble with: last night the word was “gratefully.” He eventually got it after a fairly painful minute. He then said, “Dad, aren’t you glad how I struggled with that word? I think I could feel my brain growing.” I smiled: my son was now verbalizing the tell­-tale signs of a “growth­ mindset.” But this wasn’t by accident. Recently, I put into practice research I had been reading about for the past few years: I decided to praise my son not when he succeeded at things he was already good at, but when he persevered with things that he found difficult. I stressed to him that by struggling, your brain grows. Between the deep body of research on the field of learning mindsets and this personal experience with my son, I am more convinced than ever that mindsets toward learning could matter more than anything else we teach.
Researchers have known for some time that the brain is like a muscle; that the more you use it, the more it grows. They’ve found that neural connections form and deepen most when we make mistakes doing difficult tasks rather than repeatedly having success with easy ones.
What this means is that our intelligence is not fixed, and the best way that we can grow our intelligence is to embrace tasks where we might struggle and fail.
However, not everyone realizes this. Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford University has been studying people’s mindsets towards learning for decades. She has found that most people adhere to one of two mindsets: fixed or growth. Fixed mindsets mistakenly believe that people are either smart or not, that intelligence is fixed by genes. People with growth mindsets correctly believe that capability and intelligence can be grown through effort, struggle and failure. Dweck found that those with a fixed mindset tended to focus their effort on tasks where they had a high likelihood of success and avoided tasks where they may have had to struggle, which limited their learning. People with a growth mindset, however, embraced challenges, and understood that tenacity and effort could change their learning outcomes. As you can imagine, this correlated with the latter group more actively pushing themselves and growing intellectually.
The good news is that mindsets can be taught; they’re malleable. What’s really fascinating is that Dweck and others have developed techniques that they call “growth mindset interventions,” which have shown that even small changes in communication or seemingly innocuous comments can have fairly long­-lasting implications for a person’s mindset. For instance, praising someone’s process (“I really like how you struggled with that problem”) versus praising an innate trait or talent (“You’re so clever!”) is one way to reinforce a growth ­mindset with someone. Process­ praise acknowledges the effort; talent­ praise reinforces the notion that one only succeeds (or doesn’t) based on a fixed trait. And we’ve seen this on Khan Academy as well: students are spending more time learning on Khan Academy after being exposed to messages that praise their tenacity and grit and that underscore that the brain is like a muscle.
The Internet is a dream for someone with a growth mindset. Between Khan Academy, MOOCs, and others, there is unprecedented access to endless content to help you grow your mind. However, society isn’t going to fully take advantage of this without growth mindsets being more prevalent. So what if we actively tried to change that? What if we began using whatever means are at our disposal to start performing growth mindset interventions on everyone we cared about? This is much bigger than Khan Academy or algebra – it applies to how you communicate with your children, how you manage your team at work, how you learn a new language or instrument. If society as a whole begins to embrace the struggle of learning, there is no end to what that could mean for global human potential.
And now here’s a surprise for you. By reading this article itself, you’ve just undergone the first half of a growth­-mindset intervention. The research shows that just being exposed to the research itself (­­for example, knowing that the brain grows most by getting questions wrong, not right­­) can begin to change a person’s mindset. The second half of the intervention is for you to communicate the research with others. We’ve made a video (above) that celebrates the struggle of learning that will help you do this. After all, when my son, or for that matter, anyone else asks me about learning, I only want them to know one thing. As long as they embrace struggle and mistakes, they can learn anything.

Want to join the conversation?

  • blobby green style avatar for user dlj33808
    why won't you tell your child he is smart i tell mine all the time?
    (0 votes)
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  • starky sapling style avatar for user Seymour Pashayev
    This is a great article! Thanks khan academy for making the world a better place!
    (90 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user danton.panico
    There was this one boy who graduated from college at age ten. Just HOW is that not gene based?!
    (0 votes)
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    • hopper cool style avatar for user MLGamer115
      Honestly, graduating from college at ten years old is really bizarre, but if you look at the bigger picture, all ten-year-olds could graduate from college. All they would have to do is put a RIDICULOUS amount of effort into school as this particular ten-year-old did. The only reason that never happens is that most people find it impossible...it's not.
      (63 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Jessica  Farrington
    Thank you so much for everything. I’m 36 and have always struggled with math. I’m returning to college after 15 years to again face the challenge of taking college math classes. Today, the only subject holding me back from my associates degree, is college algebra. I missed the most elementary math concepts in my formative years, when I switched schools 3 times in 2 years. This contributed to my many years of struggle. High school algebra was difficult without the basic skills using fractions and factoring. I don’t know how I passed the subject in high school, but I remember it being grueling, spending hours after school cramming for exams. I recently began re-learning basic arithmetic and am now gradually working towards higher level algebra using Khan academy. You Sir, by far, have been the best instructor I have ever had. No pretension in your methods, humble, empathetic to the needs of your students...teaching at our level. I look forward to the lessons and learning new math subjects. Then..today I received this article, synchronistic in that I’ve been being very conscientious of my negative thoughts when I hit obstacles, when I forget the rules of things I thought I already new, when I’m having a difficult time understanding a new concept. I know that the bigger challenge, bigger than math, is my thinking. I’m now ‘leaning into’ something that which I’ve fervently avoided for so long and deciding to stay positive even at the peak of frustration. And, It’s working! I’m making strides towards my goals and it’s a huge part in thanks to you. Here’s to embracing challenges! Thank you, thank you, thank you!
    (23 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Nami  Ali
    Well, I don't agree that we should not tell our children they are smart.
    Because the biggest failure in my life was because my mother never appreciated my struggles with painting in my childhood. I used to do my best. But she never said "you are good at this"
    My teachers, my father, my classmates - everyone said I was talented but my mom never did. Therefore I hated painting and stopped it. Because the horrible fact that my mom was seeking perfection damaged my self-esteem badly and made me hate painting.
    Mothers are important in our lives. Fathers as well. If one of them stops appreciating us we will lose self- confidence and become losers.
    We should say "you are smart / talented / good/ kind/ this / that (only good words) to our children in order to make them self-confident.
    (13 votes)
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  • male robot donald style avatar for user Samuel A. Vega
    will having a growth-mindset person be necessarily smarter than a fixed mindset person?
    (6 votes)
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    • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user famousguy786
      Well,a growth mindset person will try out new and challenging things more often than a fixed mindset person and would have more motivation to persevere while learning because he/she would think that the things he gets wrong would cause his brain to grow.In other words a growth mindset person has a win-win situation while learning, and this positive outlook will definitely make him/her smarter in the long run.
      (21 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user amyhan123
    Interesting article. I personally don't think a parent should hold back any words about their kids being smart, as long as they emphasize on continuing effort being the most important element in archiving anything. IMHO being smart is not why your son is reading at five. But having an interesting in reading that sustained him even when words are getting difficult is. I have no trouble saying my kids are smart. It's no different than when I tell them they run fast or eat well. I don't consider those as "praises" (merely a fact), and I think my kids know that too. I praise them when they show true interest that helps them push through difficulties, and continue holding on to it until they finish something.
    (13 votes)
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  • winston baby style avatar for user Rainniel Caryn E. Reyes
    even though i am still 10 years old thank you for inspiring me on what to do in the future when i am an adult :)
    (11 votes)
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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Tommy
    You are right Sal. Your son should only get praise when he sticks with something that is hard, and learns how to solve that problem.
    (8 votes)
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  • duskpin seed style avatar for user KatieKateKateKate10
    @ what book was your child reading when he was struggling with the word greatfuly?
    (7 votes)
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