Should We Stop Telling Young People They're Smart?

Sarah Taylor
July 20, 2015

“You are smart.” Who knew this phrase could spark controversy? James Hamblin’s blog post in The Atlantic focusing on a talk by Stanford professor of mathematics Jo Boaler got me thinking about this phrase.

At the 2015 Aspen Ideas Festival, Boaler made an impassioned case to stop labeling children as smart or gifted. 

Instead, in order to promote the development of a growth mindset and the abilities needed to be ready for life’s challenges, educators and parents should focus on telling young people “you worked hard and did a great job.”

If a child is repeatedly told he is smart, there is a danger that when he makes a mistake, rather than seeing it as an opportunity to grow, he may shut down, thinking, “Well, I messed up, so I must not be smart after all.”

In order to grow, young people need to make mistakes and be challenged, and, perhaps most importantly, they need to have the mindset that it is good to make mistakes and that seeking out challenges is the way to improve performance.

Boaler explains that math is a subject area in which many struggling students are prone to labeling their mistakes as failures, using the dead-end excuse that they just aren’t good at math. This fixed mindset is particularly damaging to girls, who are already “told by society that they probably won’t be as good as boys at math and science.”

The “growth mindset” theory—that people can become intelligent through practice—originated with psychologist Carol Dweck in her 2006 book The New Psychology of Success. Writing in TES, a UK-based online network of teachees, Kaye Wiggins quotes Dweck as asserting that some teachers “are actually doing a disservice to the kids they consider clever by not challenging them and not teaching them how to use feedback.”

Yet is it necessary to abolish the word “smart” completely?

A call to redefine “smart”: intelligence, like any mind state, can be practiced, changed and improved.

In April of my junior year of high school, I was sitting in a café at Cornell University with my mother. We had just finished the first information session and tour on our “spring break college road trip.”

Picking absentmindedly at my blueberry scone, I said I didn’t think I was smart enough for this school. I was surprised to hear her voice crack and see her eyes begin to sparkle with tears. She told me that it made her sad to hear me underestimate myself. She said that I was a smart person and could succeed anywhere if I set my mind to it.

I could do it if I tried—the second part of that message was just as important as the first. Every time that my parents or peers told me I was smart, I began to believe in myself a little bit more. I began to believe that going to a well-respected college was not a distant dream but a real possibility. (I ended up taking her words to heart and choosing Washington University in St. Louis, where I am entering my third year.)

So perhaps there is a time and place for the word “smart.” Is it so wrong for a mother to say to her child who complains of feeling dumb in school, “No, sweetie, you are smart,” in addition to “You can get better if you practice”? Is this not an example of an adult who is coaching, caring and empowering? (See the Readiness Practices).

Rather than declare war on the word “smart,” we should encourage the idea that intelligence—like any mind state—is something that can be practiced, changed and improved, rather than something innate or fixed.

Yes, that means praising a child’s effort and hard work. But it is not the end of the world if a parent or teacher uses the ‘S’ word every once in a while, or if a student gets a score of 100 on an exam in school. A 100 percent is not “overrated” but rather a sign of hard work, and it should be celebrated. (It is when a student gets 100 on multiple tests and homework assignments that a teacher should begin to wonder if that student is truly being challenged.)

What do you think? Is “smart” a poisonous word when it comes to educating our young people? Let us know in the comment section below.

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Sarah Taylor

Sarah Taylor is a rising junior at Washington University in St. Louis, serving as a summer intern with The Forum for Youth Investment and SparkAction on The Readiness Project.

This article is part of the Readiness Dispatches blog series, posted under The Readiness Project, a joint effort of The Forum for Youth Investment and SparkAction. Find more blogs and expert views in The Readiness Project Insights section.