The Secret to Raising Smart Kids

The Secret to Raising Smart Kids

Scientific American Mind – November 28, 2007

Hint:
Don’t tell your kids that they are. More than three decades of research
shows that a focus on effort—not on intelligence or ability—is key to
success in school and in life

By Carol S. Dweck

A brilliant student, Jonathan sailed through grade school. He
completed his assignments easily and routinely earned As. Jonathan
puzzled over why some of his classmates struggled, and his parents told
him he had a special gift. In the seventh grade, however, Jonathan
suddenly lost interest in school, refusing to do homework or study for
tests. As a consequence, his grades plummeted. His parents tried to
boost their son’s confidence by assuring him that he was very smart.
But their attempts failed to motivate Jonathan (who is a composite
drawn from several children). Schoolwork, their son maintained, was
boring and pointless.

Our society worships talent, and many people assume that possessing
superior intelligence or ability—along with confidence in that
ability—is a recipe for success. In fact, however, more than 30 years
of scientific investigation suggests that an overemphasis on intellect
or talent leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges
and unwilling to remedy their shortcomings.

The result plays out in children like Jonathan, who coast through
the early grades under the dangerous notion that no-effort academic
achievement defines them as smart or gifted. Such children hold an
implicit belief that intelligence is innate and fixed, making striving
to learn seem far less important than being (or looking) smart. This
belief also makes them see challenges, mistakes and even the need to
exert effort as threats to their ego rather than as opportunities to
improve. And it causes them to lose confidence and motivation when the
work is no longer easy for them.

Praising children’s innate abilities, as Jonathan’s parents did,
reinforces this mind-set, which can also prevent young athletes or
people in the workforce and even marriages from living up to their
potential. On the other hand, our studies show that teaching people to
have a "growth mind-set," which encourages a focus on effort rather
than on intelligence or talent, helps make them into high achievers in
school and in life.

The Opportunity of Defeat
I first began to investigate the underpinnings of human motivation—and
how people persevere after setbacks—as a psychology graduate student at
Yale University in the 1960s. Animal experiments by psychologists
Martin Seligman, Steven Maier and Richard Solomon of the University of
Pennsylvania had shown that after repeated failures, most animals
conclude that a situation is hopeless and beyond their control. After
such an experience, the researchers found, an animal often remains
passive even when it can affect change—a state they called learned
helplessness.

People can learn to be helpless, too, but not everyone reacts to
setbacks this way. I wondered: Why do some students give up when they
encounter difficulty, whereas others who are no more skilled continue
to strive and learn? One answer, I soon discovered, lay in people’s
beliefs about why they had failed.

In particular, attributing poor performance to a lack of ability
depresses motivation more than does the belief that lack of effort is
to blame. In 1972, when I taught a group of elementary and middle
school children who displayed helpless behavior in school that a lack
of effort (rather than lack of ability) led to their mistakes on math
problems, the kids learned to keep trying when the problems got tough.
They also solved many of the problems even in the face of difficulty.
Another group of helpless children who were simply rewarded for their
success on easy problems did not improve their ability to solve hard
math problems. These experiments were an early indication that a focus
on effort can help resolve helplessness and engender success.

Subsequent studies revealed that the most persistent students do not
ruminate about their own failure much at all but instead think of
mistakes as problems to be solved. At the University of Illinois in the
1970s I, along with my then graduate student Carol Diener, asked 60
fifth graders to think out loud while they solved very difficult
pattern-recognition problems. Some students reacted defensively to
mistakes, denigrating their skills with comments such as "I never did
have a good rememory," and their problem-solving strategies
deteriorated.

Others, meanwhile, focused on fixing errors and
honing their skills. One advised himself: "I should slow down and try
to figure this out." Two schoolchildren were particularly inspiring.
One, in the wake of difficulty, pulled up his chair, rubbed his hands
together, smacked his lips and said, "I love a challenge!" The other,
also confronting the hard problems, looked up at the experimenter and
approvingly declared, "I was hoping this would be informative!"
Predictably, the students with this attitude outperformed their cohorts
in these studies.

Two Views of Intelligence
Several years later I developed a broader theory of what separates the
two general classes of learners—helpless versus mastery-oriented. I
realized that these different types of students not only explain their
failures differently, but they also hold different "theories" of
intelligence. The helpless ones believe that intelligence is a fixed
trait: you have only a certain amount, and that’s that. I call this a
"fixed mind-set." Mistakes crack their self-confidence because they
attribute errors to a lack of ability, which they feel powerless to
change. They avoid challenges because challenges make mistakes more
likely and looking smart less so. Like Jonathan, such children shun
effort in the belief that having to work hard means they are dumb.

The mastery-oriented children, on the other hand, think intelligence
is malleable and can be developed through education and hard work. They
want to learn above all else. After all, if you believe that you can
expand your intellectual skills, you want to do just that. Because
slipups stem from a lack of effort, not ability, they can be remedied
by more effort. Challenges are energizing rather than intimidating;
they offer opportunities to learn. Students with such a growth
mind-set, we predicted, were destined for greater academic success and
were quite likely to outperform their counterparts.

We validated these expectations in a study published in early 2007.
Psychologists Lisa Blackwell of Columbia University and Kali H.
Trzes­niewski of Stanford University and I monitored 373 students for
two years during the transition to junior high school, when the work
gets more difficult and the grading more stringent, to determine how
their mind-sets might affect their math grades. At the beginning of
seventh grade, we assessed the students’ mind-sets by asking them to
agree or disagree with statements such as "Your intelligence is
something very basic about you that you can’t really change." We then
assessed their beliefs about other aspects of learning and looked to
see what happened to their grades.

As we had predicted, the students with a growth mind-set felt that
learning was a more important goal in school than getting good grades.
In addition, they held hard work in high regard, believing that the
more you labored at something, the better you would become at it. They
understood that even geniuses have to work hard for their great
accomplishments. Confronted by a setback such as a disappointing test
grade, students with a growth mind-set said they would study harder or
try a different strategy for mastering the material.

The students who held a fixed mind-set, however, were concerned
about looking smart with little regard for learning. They had negative
views of effort, believing that having to work hard at something was a
sign of low ability. They thought that a person with talent or
intelligence did not need to work hard to do well. Attributing a bad
grade to their own lack of ability, those with a fixed mind-set said
that they would study less in the future, try never to take that
subject again and consider cheating on future tests.

Such divergent outlooks had a dramatic impact on performance. At the
start of junior high, the math achievement test scores of the students
with a growth mind-set were comparable to those of students who
displayed a fixed mind-set. But as the work became more difficult, the
students with a growth mind-set showed greater persistence. As a
result, their math grades overtook those of the other students by the
end of the first semester—and the gap between the two groups continued
to widen during the two years we followed them.

Along with
Columbia psychologist Heidi Grant, I found a similar relation between
mind-set and achievement in a 2003 study of 128 Columbia freshman
premed students who were enrolled in a challenging general chemistry
course. Although all the students cared about grades, the ones who
earned the best grades were those who placed a high premium on learning
rather than on showing that they were smart in chemistry. The focus on
learning strategies, effort and persistence paid off for these students.

Confronting Deficiencies
A belief in fixed intelligence also makes people less willing to admit
to errors or to confront and remedy their deficiencies in school, at
work and in their social relationships. In a study published in 1999 of
168 freshmen entering the University of Hong Kong, where all
instruction and coursework are in English, three Hong Kong colleagues
and I found that students with a growth mind-set who scored poorly on
their English proficiency exam were far more inclined to take a
remedial English course than were low-scoring students with a fixed
mind-set. The students with a stagnant view of intelligence were
presumably unwilling to admit to their deficit and thus passed up the
opportunity to correct it.

A fixed mind-set can similarly hamper communication and progress in
the workplace by leading managers and employees to discourage or ignore
constructive criticism and advice. Research by psychologists Peter
Heslin and Don VandeWalle of Southern Methodist University and Gary
Latham of the University of Toronto shows that managers who have a
fixed mind-set are less likely to seek or welcome feedback from their
employees than are managers with a growth mind-set. Presumably,
managers with a growth mind-set see themselves as works-in-progress and
understand that they need feedback to improve, whereas bosses with a
fixed mind-set are more likely to see criticism as reflecting their
underlying level of competence. Assuming that other people are not
capable of changing either, executives with a fixed mind-set are also
less likely to mentor their underlings. But after Heslin, VandeWalle
and Latham gave managers a tutorial on the value and principles of the
growth mind-set, supervisors became more willing to coach their
employees and gave more useful advice.

Mind-set can affect the quality and longevity of personal
relationships as well, through people’s willingness—or unwillingness—to
deal with difficulties. Those with a fixed mind-set are less likely
than those with a growth mind-set to broach problems in their
relationships and to try to solve them, according to a 2006 study I
conducted with psychologist Lara Kammrath of Wilfrid Laurier University
in Ontario. After all, if you think that human personality traits are
more or less fixed, relationship repair seems largely futile.
Individuals who believe people can change and grow, however, are more
confident that confronting concerns in their relationships will lead to
resolutions.

Proper Praise
How do we transmit a growth mind-set to our children? One way is by
telling stories about achievements that result from hard work. For
instance, talking about math geniuses who were more or less born that
way puts students in a fixed mind-set, but descriptions of great
mathematicians who fell in love with math and developed amazing skills
engenders a growth mind-set, our studies have shown. People also
communicate mind-sets through praise. Although many, if not most,
parents believe that they should build up a child by telling him  or
her how brilliant and talented he or she is, our research suggests that
this is misguided.

In studies involving several hundred fifth graders published in
1998, for example, Columbia psychologist Claudia M. Mueller and I gave
children questions from a nonverbal IQ test. After the first 10
problems, on which most children did fairly well, we praised them. We
praised some of them for their intelligence: "Wow … that’s a really
good score. You must be smart at this." We commended others for their
effort: "Wow … that’s a really good score. You must have worked really
hard."

We found that intelligence praise encouraged a fixed
mind-set more often than did pats on the back for effort. Those
congratulated for their intelligence, for example, shied away from a
challenging assignment—they wanted an easy one instead—far more often
than the kids applauded for their effort. (Most of those lauded for
their hard work wanted the difficult problem set from which they would
learn.) When we gave everyone hard problems anyway, those praised for
being smart became discouraged, doubting their ability. And their
scores, even on an easier problem set we gave them afterward, declined
as compared with their previous results on equivalent problems. In
contrast, students praised for their effort did not lose confidence
when faced with the harder questions, and their performance improved
markedly on the easier problems that followed.

Making Up Your Mind-set
In addition to encouraging a growth mind-set through praise for effort,
parents and teachers can help children by providing explicit
instruction regarding the mind as a learning machine. Blackwell,
Trzesniewski and I recently designed an eight-session workshop for 91
students whose math grades were declining in their first year of junior
high. Forty-eight of the students received instruction in study skills
only, whereas the others attended a combination of study skills
sessions and classes in which they learned about the growth mind-set
and how to apply it to schoolwork.

In the growth mind-set classes, students read and discussed an
article entitled "You Can Grow Your Brain." They were taught that the
brain is like a muscle that gets stronger with use and that learning
prompts neurons in the brain to grow new connections. From such
instruction, many students began to see themselves as agents of their
own brain development. Students who had been disruptive or bored sat
still and took note. One particularly unruly boy looked up during the
discussion and said, "You mean I don’t have to be dumb?"

As the semester progressed, the math grades of the kids who learned
only study skills continued to decline, whereas those of the students
given the growth-mind-set training stopped falling and began to bounce
back to their former levels. Despite being unaware that there were two
types of instruction, teachers reported noticing significant
motivational changes in 27 percent of the children in the growth
mind-set workshop as compared with only 9 percent of students in the
control group. One teacher wrote: "Your workshop has already had an
effect. L [our unruly male student], who never puts in any extra effort
and often doesn’t turn in homework on time, actually stayed up late to
finish an assignment early so I could review it and give him a chance
to revise it. He earned a B+. (He had been getting Cs and lower.)"

Other researchers have replicated our results. Psychologists
Catherine Good, then at Columbia, and Joshua Aronson and Michael
Inzlicht of New York University reported in 2003 that a growth mind-set
workshop raised the math and English achievement test scores of seventh
graders. In a 2002 study Aronson, Good (then a graduate student at the
University of Texas at Austin) and their colleagues found that college
students began to enjoy their schoolwork more, value it more highly and
get better grades as a result of training that fostered a growth
mind-set.

We have now encapsulated such instruction in an interactive computer
program called "Brain­ology," which should be more widely available by
mid-2008. Its six modules teach students about the brain—what it does
and how to make it work better. In a virtual brain lab, users can click
on brain regions to determine their functions or on nerve endings to
see how connections form when people learn. Users can also advise
virtual students with problems as a way of practicing how to handle
schoolwork difficulties; additionally, users keep an online journal of
their study practices.

New York City seventh graders who tested
a pilot version of Brainology told us that the program had changed
their view of learning and how to promote it. One wrote: "My favorite
thing from Brainology is the neurons part where when u [sic] learn
something there are connections and they keep growing. I always picture
them when I’m in school." A teacher said of the students who used the
program: "They offer to practice, study, take notes, or pay attention
to ensure that connections will be made."

Teaching children such information is not just a ploy to get them to
study. People do differ in intelligence, talent and ability. And yet
research is converging on the conclusion that great accomplishment, and
even what we call genius, is typically the result of years of passion
and dedication and not something that flows naturally from a gift.
Mozart, Edison, Curie, Darwin and Cézanne were not simply born with
talent; they cultivated it through tremendous and sustained effort.
Similarly, hard work and discipline contribute much more to school
achievement than IQ does.

Such lessons apply to almost every human endeavor. For instance,
many young athletes value talent more than hard work and have
consequently become unteachable. Similarly, many people accomplish
little in their jobs without constant praise and encouragement to
maintain their motivation. If we foster a growth mind-set in our homes
and schools, however, we will give our children the tools to succeed in
their pursuits and to become responsible employees and citizens.

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