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Taming the Lizard brain Part 2: Praising effort VS ability
Praising effort VS ability. Which is better for our learners?

For years, educators and parents believed that praising children for being smart would increase their self-confidence and help them enjoy learning. We know now this is not true.

“Praising students’ intelligence gives them a short burst of pride,” says Dweck, “followed by a long string of negative consequences.”

This kind of praise forces the child into the innate-intelligence mindset, which makes them more fearful of messing up, less willing to work hard to learn new skills, less adventurous with difficult challenges, more prone to cheat or give up, and less confident in their ability to be successful.

“Praising students for their intelligence, then, hands them not motivation and resilience but a fixed mindset with all its vulnerability,” concludes Dweck.

When we praise students for the processes they use – engagement, perseverance, strategies, improvement – it increases motivation and effort, willingness to try new challenges, greater self-confidence, and a higher level of success.


The second driver of our fears comes from within and is referred to as our “lizard brain,” or the Amygdala if you want to be scientific.

The Lizard brain can be located near your brain stem and can also be found in wild animals. The lizard brain is wired to seek safety and help us survive. This is useful when our life is in danger, but when it comes to learning, our lizard brain holds us back.

We have this “lizard” in our brains that basically wants to stop us from making mistakes. The best way not to make a mistake is to not try at all. The lizard brain is the voice in your head that tells you that you are not ready and that you must play it safe. It is why most people hate to speak up or why we dislike asking for help.

Now, imagine you are in grade 8 for the first time. You were brilliant at Maths in Grade 3, but in the intermediate phase, you started struggling. You barely passed Maths in Grade 7, now you are in a class where the top students are getting all the praise for being so brilliant. The lizard brain kicks in and tells you to rather do something that you’re good at. Be funny! Be the clown! And we all know the narrative from there...

The problem is that we cannot kill the lizard brain, or even silence it, but we can learn how to tame it and ride with it. When a feeling of fear or uncertainty arises, it is about taking a breath and asking: Will I be a lizard or a learner?


During the next blog, I will dig into how we can implement the growth mindset into our classes.


Blog Written by: 

Renate Van der Westhuizen 


Photo 1: Photo by Ismail Salad Osman Hajji dirir on Unsplash

Photo 2: Photo by Robina Weermeijer on Unsplash