31 Jul 2007 etbe   » (Master)

Praising Children vs Praising Programmers

In a comment on my blog post titled Childhood, Don Marti refers to an earlier blog post he wrote which refers to a New York Magazine article about the effects of praising children. The article does in some depth to describe scientific research into the issue of praising children for being “smart” vs praising them for working hard - with the conclusion being that it’s significantly better to praise them for working hard!

One quote from that article that I find very significant is “Baumeister has come to believe the continued appeal of self-esteem is largely tied to parents’ pride in their children’s achievements: It’s so strong that ‘when they praise their kids, it’s not that far from praising themselves’“. This matches my theory about people who subject their children to TV documentaries about gifted children.

The conclusions regarding children seem quite clear and the article provides direct advice to parents and teachers as to how to avoid the problems.

One issue I am wondering about after reading the NYM article is whether being exposed to smarter children hurts a child’s learning ability. The fact that there is no correlation between high self-esteem and learning ability has been proven, but the reports do not indicate whether there might be a correlation between a decreases in self-esteem and a decrease in learning ability. I recall pointing out to one the few good teachers at high-school that having some of the most capable and some of the least capable students in the same class was inefficient and led to excessive boredom for the more capable students and excessive difficulty in keeping up for the less capable students. I was told that “streaming” was considered bad because it was bad for the less capable students to know their status. I was also refused access to my results of the Westpac Maths contest for the same reason - which seems particularly strange, I was in the training program for the International Mathematical Olympiad so I doubt that releasing my score from one maths contest would change anyone’s opinion of my ability.

I am also wondering about how this effects adults (apart from their education history). Should we try to praise work colleagues for their effort instead of being smart? Are adults discouraged from trying hard at their work when they see others succeeding with little apparent effort?

One data point for this seems to be kernel coders in the Linux community. Everyone sees super-star Linux kernel coders on stage (on a pedestal) at conferences and it’s easy to believe that such people are significantly more intelligent than others (the well-known programmers are indeed very smart - but they also work a lot harder than most people believe) and that being so smart is a necessary pre-condition for submitting Linux kernel patches. I have met many people who appear to have the ability to be good at any type of coding but seem intimidated by kernel coding it for these reasons. Statements such as “I’ve been doing Linux coding for 10 years but I’m not a kernel coder” are often heard at Linux conferences. Also people who’s skills are respected are often regarded as kernel coders without any real reason.

The Linux kernel is a large C program with limited options for a debugger, if you are good at C coding you should do OK! I know that I am trivialising the issues related to kernel coding, there are some tasks such as reverse-engineering device-drivers and debugging some of the tricky race conditions that require special skills - but no-one is born with such skills! I would not suggest that someone try a significant kernel coding task on their first attempt - as with all areas of programming it’s best to start with the easy things first. The web site kernelnewbies.org is a good source of information for people who are getting into kernel coding.

I wonder whether a change in the attitudes towards such things could encourage more people to write free software, and more of the current programmers to attempt new challenges (such as kernel coding).

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Syndicated 2007-07-31 09:00:22 from etbe

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