Recently I’ve become a bit obsessed with the word “smart” in schools. And I think we have a problem.
I don’t know when it happens, but students learn that some kids at school are “smart.” Everyone knows who the “smart” kids are. Survey your students and they’d probably name the same few kids.
“Smart” is extremely common praise at school.
What Does “Smart” Mean?
I got to wondering: what does “smart” even mean? It’s a surprisingly difficult word to figure out. But in school it has a pretty specific meaning. Take a couple of moments and ask your class to define it.
Class, I’ve noticed that sometimes we say people are “smart” at school. Why do we call people “smart”?
I’ll bet your students think that “smart” kids:
- “know a lot” (this is the most common response I get)
- finish quickly
- are never called over by the teacher
- have the answer (think about how students react when the “smart” raises their hand… but is wrong)
- don’t make mistakes (imagine the sounds students make when they see that the “smart” kid got an 80% on their test)
In short, kids think their peers are “smart” when school appears to be easy for them. Enjoy this wonderful Calvin and Hobbes comic about this very topic:
But “easy” isn’t what smart should mean! And it certainly shouldn’t be something we praise kids for. “Easy” often means they already knew it!
And… if kids think “smart” means “it’s easy for me,” guess what happens when it eventually (and inevitably) gets not so easy?
“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 (as many gifted kids do). 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 the 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? Even as an adult, I am 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 praise.
Make “Smart” A Bad Word
But 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 interesting stat.
Always “easy” 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.
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