Carol Dweck’s emphasis on growth and direct observation

Carol Dweck

“How Not to Talk to Your Children: The Inverse Power of Praise”  New York Magazine. February 19. 2007


“Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control. They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to failure.”


Dweck, a professor of psychology and education at Stanford, is responding to the common mindset that many of us that is convinced we are born with certain innate capacities that shape our success often beyond our control (e.g. great in math, but a terrible speller; a prodigy on the violin, but will never be mechanical; spectacular athlete, but no aptitude for history).  From childhood on we receive positive feedback about those so-called natural skills, gifts, and capacities, while also receiving subtle messages about where will likely fail or interests we should avoid.


If a child’s assessment is about their effort and growth, then we share the conviction with the learner that “everyone can change and grow through application and experience.”  Failing – as we all do at various times and in various arenas – will not be about our essential being and innate capacities.  We still have lots of opportunities to try again, to learn important information and skills from failing, not just life’s lessons,  that can lead to more growth.  Students can become comfortable with asking for help, rather than giving up or blaming the one who did the assessment.


One of Dweck’s other significant contributions has to do with the significance of direct observation. If in a preaching class the homiletics professor writes on a student’s sermon text, “This is fine work. You’re a great preacher,” nothing helpful has been communicated in that evaluation. The student doesn’t know what specifically about the sermon was fine so that she can repeat those fine qualities in the next sermon. Nor does she know what constitutes a great preacher.  But if the teacher listens and watches carefully as she delivers the sermon in front of the class, then gives very specific feedback about instances that revealed both the kind of delivery and textual work that has already been discussed in class as models of good preaching, the student will know what particular practices, what specific elements of the sermon and sermon preparation were laudable and worthy of repeating. Students involved in field education (nursing, education, public health, medicine, theology, etc.) will require this focused assessment on particular observed practices.




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  1. David J., I like your post. You make some great observations. As we talk about assessment, your last paragraph begs the question, can a rubrics be created that assesses “a good sermon”? Are there some things we teach that we can only assess parts of the assignment? For instance, we can assess the delivery of a sermon. We can assess the biblical engagement of a sermon. Can we assess the sermon as a whole?

    David K.

  2. David K,
    It’s a good question. I’m unsure whether the composite of all the pieces – should all the pieces reflect good work – will always be a unified example of fine work, or whether it’s possible for that final product, however all those pieces got assembled and integrated, could turn out to be worse than any of the parts. I suspect not, but this goes to the question about the practice of integration, itself a skill.
    David J.

  3. David K and David J, Integration is a great word to focus on, so what about a rubric that also assesses the integration? For example, I teach academic presentation skills for international graduate students: at the higher levels, all components come into play: overall message and purpose, engagement of the audience (eye contact, body language, use of voice, pausing, stress, pacing), precise and academic language, flow and cohesion of the presentation, skills for describing data/graphs. From holistic to granular — the whole package is assessed. Would that work in assessing/teaching sermons? I think it would be fabulously successful. The sermon is more about the words, it is evocative, provocative, and use of voice and dynamics/engaging the audience I think is a critical ‘skill’.
    I enjoyed your posts!

  4. Very nice advice, Peggy. We never want to miss out on the bigger picture because we’re focusing on the small details. I think a rubric including the points you suggested could be a very effective assessment tool.

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