A brilliant student, Marcus sailed through grade school. He completed his assignments easily and routinely earned As. Marcus puzzled over why some of his classmates struggled, and his parents told him he had a special gift. In the seventh grade, however, Marcus 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 Marcus (who is a composite drawn from several children). Schoolwork, their son maintained, was boring and pointless.

The story above is from a Scientific American Mind article entitled The Secret to Raising Smart Kids. (I've changed the name because in the original it is "Jonathan."  Apologies to any Marcuses who might read this.)  I insist that Marcus was probably right:  most seventh grade schoolwork is boring and pointless.  Be that as it may, the article investigates a question I have wrestled with for decades:  Why do so many bright students fail of their promise, surpassed sooner or later by their apparently average, ordinary classmates?

My own conclusion is that children who meet no challenge in their early schoolwork miss the opportunity to struggle early in life, when they are best able to learn from the experience. Eventually, even the most intelligent person will encounter a problem that does not admit of easy solution.  An average student will learn while still very young that answers aren't handed to him, but must be wrested from the universe with much study and effort.  The gifted student may not encounter this harsh reality until college or graduate school, when his approach to learning and problem-solving is already well established and may be difficult or impossible to change.  Hence my frustration with the American educational system, which in the main deprives young, smart children of the opportunities they need to develop one of life's most essential skills:  perseverence in the face of difficulty.

The article suggests another dimension to the problem, and what's better, an approach to counteracting it.  "Helpless" students have a fixed mind-set about intelligence, viewing it as something inborn and generally unchangeable.  "Mastery-oriented" students believe intelligence is malleable, and have what the authors call a growth mind-set.  Unfortunately, telling our children that they are smart, and allowing them to be labelled as "gifted and talented," encourages the former view.  We would do well, instead, to praise them for hard work and persistence, and emphasize to them that the brain, like a muscle, grows with exercise.

[M]ore 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.

[C]hildren...who coast through the early grades [in school] under the dangerous notion that no-effort academic achievement defines them as smart or gifted....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.

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.

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....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.

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, [we] 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.

[Some colleagues 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.

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.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, April 7, 2009 at 10:08 am | Edit
Permalink | Read 2063 times
Category Education: [first] [previous] [next] [newest] Children & Family Issues: [first] [previous] [next] [newest]

Being someone who breezed through most of school, I understand some of what they are saying, and I don't see "striving to learn" as an important thing, though I wouldn't put "looking" or even "being" smart on the top of the priority list either. It does seem to me that at least some "giftedness" is innate, though some people try to make up for a lack with lots of work. I was shocked to hear that another "smart" student in high school did hours of homework every night. We had almost identical schedules, and I rarely had more than 30 minutes, and none most of the time, since I could finish it during class. So I definitely don't think that not having "innate" smartness dooms you to failure or something, but it is hard to believe that it is only environment that affects "smartness", as I'd expect that her environment was just as good as mine.

The author has some good points, although I don't know what the best solution is as far as mass schooling goes, whether mixing kids of "smartness levels" or separating, since I saw some of both growing up. The "dumb kid class" (as the participants of that class referred to it) had that persona, and so didn't help anything. But, when we were all mixed together, then it was obvious that some people "got it" more than others, and so the teachers aimed about the 25% percentile to not have people fall too far behind, which of course, leads to the "bored" syndrome of the kids who are getting it.

I guess the easy answer is more individualized teaching and methods, though that is harder the as the quantity and variation of the student goes up per teacher.

I've personally heard people say the "You mean I don't have to be dumb" statement. In one case, it was a guy who got straight F's every year through middle school, but for some reason (self-esteem?) those kids continued to not be held back, but just go from year to year with everyone else. Apparently, 9th grade is the magic grade when self-esteem no longer matters or something, because that is when when you fail you don't go onto the next grade, so the "normal" path is to get to 9th grade, and then stay there until you drop out.

Seems like a bizarre system to me, though I'll admit the stigma of "staying back" is a big one. The guy I mentioned was so surprised when he was held back that he actually started to do work the next year. His grades improved a little (not really any way that they couldn't improve once he started doing a homework or two), and he stayed back again. The third time's the charm, as they say, and he passed the next year, and went onto graduate. At least for him, he probably should have been held back way earlier and probably could have avoided those extra years as a freshman, as well as all the wasted time through the younger years of not really learning much.

As for the "study skills only" or "study skills plus 'brain-growth' teaching", it seems obvious that "more is better" in the general case, and I also have never seen a broad "study skills" teaching that was any good at all. I have seen one-on-one study skill/homework help do some good for students, when the teacher can figure out how the student learns.

As for myself, I suppose in some ways I don't have the perseverance, though I think that is outweighed by my perfectionist tendencies. In problem solving, I do care more about getting the answer than the methods, so always hated having to "show my work" when the problem didn't require any work. I'd purposely write the answer down first, and then show how the teacher would have solved it. I just remembered a quote from a engineering professor who when proving some mathematical theorem said something along the lines of, "well, we're all engineers, so if you want to go read about the proof go ahead, but we'll just prove it the engineer's way: we'll plug in -1, 0, 1 and a random really big number. ok, good, the theorem must be true."

As far as labeling folks, "gifted", I do think it absurd in the lower grades (ie. does it really serve anything positive to have a "gifted" program in the first grade?) I suppose I did like the extra opportunities I had in elementary school of going to other classes occasionally, having my own math book, taking high computer classes, and going to the local community college for Saturday "fun" events, so perhaps that is the same as what Pittsburgh schools do for the "gifted" students, but somehow it seems less obvious if one student just has a different math book, and probably none of my friends knew about the Saturday trips to the college. People knew about the computer courses and leaving to go to a different English class, I don't really recall any issues with that - other than the "normal" name-calling that those activities encouraged.

Heh - I just remembered a guy who used to call me names in elementary school but was quite happy to pay me a quarter to play the video game I had on my watch most mornings... (sort of like Porter's soda selling, though the cost was free to me)

Pittsburgh schools send kids off to "smart schools" once every week or two, where maybe 4 kids from each class are picked, and grouped all together, to do more interesting work. I suppose in a sense, that is a mixed approach to hetero/homogenized grouping in the classes; I guess I have an adverse reaction to it based on how formal it is, the testing and acceptance into the "program", prior to entering first grade.

My brother would probably say that is what is so good about High Tech High - that you aren't accepted into it based on grades, it is simply a geographical lottery for kids who are interested enough to apply. The things they do in that school are very interesting, though I don't know if it is a model that can work throughout the country from an economic standpoint - they have lots of money, though if the "regular" public schools really waste as much as some say they do, maybe it could work.

Ok, that's probably enough for now - still haven't made it to breakfast, since I was just going to sit down on the computer for a minute while waiting for Heather and the kids to be ready to eat....

Posted by Jon Daley on Wednesday, April 08, 2009 at 10:55 am

I haven't had time to really process all that was said here, but I think it would be worth reading "The Element" by Ken Robinson.

At the end of the book he talks about not reforming schools, but transforming schools. He mentions the Reggio method and also the A+ Schools.

Without going back to the book to look things up (so beware) I believe one of the problems he sees with schools is the heirarchy of subjects. Certain subjects like math are given greater importance than the arts, for example. A student may have other gifts, but these are not recognized. I think he would suggest all subjects should have equal importance, that "multiple intelligences" be used.

On standardized tests: "The problem comes when these tests become more than simply a tool of education and turn into the focus of it." (Okay, I did look that up).

Anyway, I will re-read the post above when I have some time and give it some more thought. This is a concern with me especially with T. Things have come fairly easy and he tends to give up or lose interest when he is challenged. The question is, how to change it. Find his Element?

Posted by dstb on Thursday, April 09, 2009 at 9:04 am

I'm at position "-1" on the library waiting list for The Element...hopefully that means it won't be much longer before I get my hands on it.

I will be interested to see what he has to say about transforming schools. I remember John Holt's writings move from attempting to change schools to developing strategies to avoid them altogether, as he grew tired of slamming his head against the wall.

I wouldn't agree that all subjects are of equal importance, though I do remember Dorothy Sayers saying that—at a certain level—the subject itself doesn't matter; its purpose is to give the student material on which work as he developes skill with the tools of learning.

One thing I know—you don't do what was done to one guy I know in elementary school. He struggled with academics, but excelled at drawing. So guess what? The school used art as a "reward," hoping to inspire him. Good intentions, I'm sure, but the result was that he spent too much time struggling through what he did poorly to have any left to work on what he did well.

I wish I had had the sense to do homework during class. I was one of the smart ones who had tons of homework every night. For some reason I thought I was supposed to be paying attention during class.... Fortunately, Janet managed to shed those inhibitions; I don't know about Heather.

As far as I'm concerned, the purpose of a "gifted" program in the first grade is to have at least one day a week when the kids are actually learning something. Heather didn't "need" a gifted program until she went to public school in second grade; the Montessori school where she attended kindergarten and first grade gave her quite enough challenge, because in grades 1 - 6 the students were grouped by ability, regardless of grade. Janet, who began public school with kindergarten, left at the end of second grade with no more skills in math than when she entered, except for what we taught her and what she acquired on her own. Every one of her teachers was excellent, several of her classmates at least her intellectual equal—but there was no provision made for someone who knew before kindergarten all the curriculum required for entrance into third grade.

Incidentally, Heather's kindergarten program was half-day and included at least two recesses, yet managed to teach more than Janet's full-day, minimal-recess kindergarten.

Posted by SursumCorda on Friday, April 10, 2009 at 10:26 am

It is true that I can hardly remember anything from first grade, so who knows if it was any good, and maybe time would have been better spent in a once-a-week program.

I do remember having a stove in our second grade class. That was great. We also started mad minutes in second grade, and that was loads of fun.

Posted by Jon Daley on Friday, April 10, 2009 at 5:29 pm

And now thinking more about mad minutes, part of the fun, besides challenging myself, which I always liked, was that even though there wasn't any official reward for finishing the paper faster than a minute, the pride/joy that came in slamming your pencil down first (in a competition of probably four or five of us) was motivating. Zero credit if you got any wrong, at least by my way of grading - which was you didn't get to go onto the next sheet unless you got all of them right.

Posted by Jon Daley on Friday, April 10, 2009 at 5:31 pm
Add comment

(Comments may be delayed by moderation.)