I don’t know when it happens, but all students learn that some kids at school are “smart.” And everyone knows who the “smart kids” are. Survey your students and they’ll probably name the same few kids. “Smart” is extremely common praise at school. I think we should stop and ask: what does smart even mean?
So, What Does “Smart” Mean?
As a kid, I was “smart.” As a teacher, I could point out my “smart kids.” But I got to wondering: what does “smart” even mean? It’s a surprisingly difficult word to pin down!
But at school “smart” has a pretty specific meaning – and it’s probably not what we intend. Take a couple of moments. Ask your class to define this word.
Class, I’ve noticed that sometimes we say people are “smart” here at school. But why do we call those people “smart”? What do they do that makes them “smart”?
I’ll bet your students think that “smart” kids:
- “know a lot” (this is the most common response I get)
- finish quickly
- never need the teacher’s help
- have the answer (think about how students react when the “smart” raises their hand… but is wrong)
- don’t make mistakes (imagine the sounds that students make when they notice that the “smart” kid missed something)
In short, kids think their peers are “smart” when school appears to be easy for them. Enjoy this wonderful Calvin and Hobbes comic that gets to the heart of what smart means.
Smart and Easy Shouldn’t Go Together!
Kids think that “smart” flows from “easy.” But, gosh, that sure isn’t what we want smart to mean! And it certainly shouldn’t be something we praise kids for. “Easy” often means the student already knew it!
And, here’s the real twist: if kids think “smart” means “it’s easy for me,” guess what happens when it eventually (and inevitably) gets not so easy?
This. Is. A. Problem!
“Smart” Is Slippery
The more I thought about it, the harder it became to define “smart.” I even looked it up:
Smart (adj): having or showing a quick-witted intelligence.
Oof! That’s not very helpful. So what does intelligence mean?
Intelligence (noun): the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills.
Wow. “The ability to acquire knowledge?” That doesn’t seem right. Perhaps no one knows what “smart” actually means?
It might be fun to have your class survey parents, friends, siblings, etc and gather a bunch of definitions of “smart” to see what the patterns are.
“Smart” Leads to Unrealistic Expectations
When I was a kid, I had a great memory. One of my mom’s friends dubbed me “The Walking Brain” because I could recall facts about my mom’s life that she had forgotten. Much like a purse, she could just pull info out of me to help her finish a story. I delighted in this praise and the feeling of “smart.”
Since I was praised for knowing random things, guess what happens now when I don’t know random things? When I have to say, “Oh, sorry, I don’t know.” Even as an adult, I get a bit ashamed. Seriously. It makes me feel like I’m less special for not already knowing every random fact. After all, I used to be “The Walking Brain!”
Praise has long term effects. Students value what we, as teachers and parents, praise.
Make “Smart” A Bad Word
So, if we don’t have a clear definition of “smart”, let’s get rid of it. It’s too vague. It has weird connotations. Make it a bad word.
I’ve tried eliminating “smart” from my own vocabulary. It takes work. I really have to think. What about this person am I praising? What did they do with their brain that impressed me? What do I mean by “smart”?
Brainstorm specific compliments that could replace “you’re smart” with your class.
Class, it seems like “smart” means lots of different things. I don’t think it’s a very helpful word. It’s a shortcut word. So from now on, let’s try to be more specific. What could we praise someone for rather than just calling them “smart”?
- You made an unexpected connection!
- You understood that very quickly.
- You used some information that no one else knew!
- You noticed something that I didn’t notice.
- You explained that idea so clearly, a five-year-old could understand it.
Create a classroom collection of specific “smart” praise. This will absolutely be a year-long project. Be aware of moments to call out actions you notice and add to the “specific praise” list.
If It’s Easy, Don’t Say “Smart”
Finally, if something’s easy for a kid, do not tell them they’re “smart”! Point out how easy it was, congratulate them, but get them working on something not easy right away.
🚨 When it’s always “easy” for a kid, this is an educational emergency!
In the next article in this series, we’ll look at how “smart” becomes a burden for bright kids as they get older.