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What matters more: talent or effort?

Recently I saw a cartoon that showed two smiling parents watching their child as he brushed his teeth. A banner was posted over the top of the bathroom mirror that said, "Congratulations on brushing your teeth!" One parent was looking adoringly at the child, hands clasped, while the other stated, "I just feel like we're setting him up to be disappointed in the real world." We know exactly what that parent is saying—it seems that many children these days expect to be praised for common accomplishments in life, and yet at some point the praise will not be so readily forthcoming. How will children react then? 

Literature on childhood education today is addressing this very circumstance: that praising (and overpraising) children for their talents or their abilities may be counterproductive. Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman's book NurtureShock begins with a similar story, this one about Thomas, who, ever since he could walk, has heard continually that he's "so smart." He even scored at the very top in an IQ test taken to enter kindergarten. And yet, as Thomas progressed through school, his father noticed that Thomas avoided trying new things unless he was positive that he would be successful at them. Thus, when something new did not come so quickly to him, he would quickly give up. In fact, Thomas grew to believe that there were things he was good at and things that he was not so good at, and he avoided anything that he felt he was not good at. It was black or white for him. When a challenge came about for Thomas, he preferred not to work hard at it, afraid that he would appear to be unintelligent.1 He had started on a path in life where he underestimated his abilities, and with this "lack of perceived competence adopt[ed] lower standards for success and expect[ed] less" of himself.2 

Recent research by Dr. Carol Dweck at Stanford reveals that individuals generally possess one of two mindsets: a "fixed mindset" where people see talent and intelligence as static, generally unlikely to change throughout life, or a "growth mindset" where individuals believe that talent or intelligence can be developed.3 People with a fixed mindset often spend their lives proving their perceived strengths and weaknesses to the world. They may avoid difficult challenges because failing could cause them to lose their appearance of intelligence. Thus, they are hindered in developing their talents and abilities in life. Individuals with a growth mindset, believing that they can get better at whatever they try, spend their lives putting their efforts into learning, working hard, and developing learning and practicing strategies that help them grow. Clearly, it pays to help children and parents involved with music lessons invest in a view of piano playing as something that can be developed and not something just for the very talented. Errors and failure are a part of growth and learning for everyone, and they should be accepted as that, rather than excused. 

Carol Dweck cites one of her own research studies with hundreds of students, mostly early adolescents. Everyone in the study was given a nonverbal IQ test, and everyone received praise upon completion of the test. Half of the students were told something like, "You must be smart at this." (Have you ever told a piano student, "You're so talented"?) The other students were praised for their effort, and told something like, "You must have worked really hard."4 Rather than being praised for their abilities, they were recognized for doing what it took for them individually to succeed. While both groups were the same at the outset, once the praise was given, they began to differ. Those given praise on their ability, when given the choice of taking one of two additional tests, usually chose the safer and easier test. Those recognized for their efforts, not praised for their talent or intelligence, generally chose the harder of the next two tests.5

The implications are of great interest to music teachers.We need to be careful to praise or recognize our students' genuine efforts in their music study, rather than tell them they are talented or smart or gifted. It is important to recognize the process—what is happening now—and in so doing, to set students up to learn even more fully how to work at achieving even greater skills.We want to appreciate the hard work and efforts they are putting into learning a piece, not their talents or abilities. What are some ways to turn what we say to a student into recognition rather than praise? 

Let's say that a student just finished playing a Clementi sonatina movement. It was the second lesson on the piece, and the student was well prepared for that point in time. Rather than automatically saying "good" at the end of the playing, a response could be, "That worked well for this stage.What is it about your practice this week that helped you?" Suppose a student struggled with the double notes in a Chopin waltz in a lesson. You could recognize a prior effort that worked by saying, "Remember when you practiced such and such piece doing so and so, and it suddenly helped? How can we do that with this passage?" What if the student accomplished something you asked of her the first week? It would be better to say, "You seem to really enjoy learning," rather than, "I am so proud of you." Some additional statements to encourage a growth mindset in piano students, rendered only when appropriate, could be: 

"Your tenacity in doing such and such paid off by...." 

"I noticed your resourcefulness in practicing [this way...] to accomplish this passage." 

"In preparing for this, your practice routine of doing so and so seemed to work for you." 

"I'm proud of you for figuring that out." 

"I like the way you keep working whether it is easy or hard."

What about errors or failures in music study? Clearly they are part of growth, learning, and development for everyone. It can be dangerous for a parent or teacher to excuse or protect a child from a failure when it occurs, even if it seems to be helpful in the short run. Dweck cites a story about nine-year-old Elizabeth, who attended her first gymnastic meet, prepared and confident. Gymnastics was something that she loved, and she was good at it. In fact, she did well in all of the events she entered, but not well enough to win ribbons in any of them. She was devastated. Dweck asks, "What would you do if you were Elizabeth's parents? 

  1. Tell Elizabeth you thought she was the best. 
  2. Tell her she was robbed of a ribbon that was rightfully hers. 
  3. Reassure her that gymnastics is not that important. 
  4. Tell her she has the ability and will surely win next time. 
  5. Tell her she didn't deserve to win."6

Dweck explains the implications of making these statements, emphasizing that the first four protect her from her failure. The first statement is not sincere, and tells her nothing of how to improve. The second statement places the blame on others, and does not focus on her. Especially significant, the third teaches her to devalue the activity if she does not do well—not a message that should be sent. The fourth tells her that her inborn talent and ability will help her to win next time. The fifth option is actually the most truthful, and can be stated in a subtle way with the child—by talking about feelings (disappointment), her true level of accomplishment compared with the time (and years) she has put into gymnastics, and telling her that she'll need to continue to work if she really wants to do this.7

In terms of recognizing effort in music students, be careful not to over-recognize common achievements. The relationship between effort and achievement is direct, and children (and their parents) can quickly learn this through music study at the hands of an aware teacher who values the process of student growth. Recognizing an achievement that is too small or easy leads to the student's believing that the praise is undeserved. If this continues the student will ultimately stop believing the teacher. Students need to understand that talent is not fixed; that the more highquality effort they put into any activity, the more they will achieve. And ultimately, nothing motivates children more than competence.8

Notes: 

Bronson, P. & Merryman, A. (2009). NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children. New York: Twelve, Hachette Book Group, pp. 11-12. 

2 Ibid., p. 12. 

3 Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books, Random House, pp. 6-7. 

4 Ibid., pp. 71-72. 

5 Ibid., p. 72. 

6 Ibid., pp. 180-181. 

Ibid., 181. 

The idea of competence as a motivator of children is discussed convincingly in the book Motivated Minds: Raising Children to Love Learning, by Deborah Stipek and Kathy Seal (Henry Holt & Co., 2001).

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