“If you imagine less, less will be what you undoubtedly deserve. Do what you love, and don’t stop until you get what you love. Work as hard as you can, imagine immensities…”
At some point, we all — either as children, parents or educators — have likely heard someone say “he is so smart” or “he is never going to make it.” While those comments reflect our inherent personal perspectives they can also become the academic trajectories of many children.
After a brief eight years in education, I have finally seen many of my former sixth graders graduate high school and move on to college and career. I recall their tenure in my classroom. Some were driven to succeed, most did what was expected, and some simply floundered.
But the most enlightening moment was when I saw the kids who had struggled and floundered despite endless afternoons working together and parent teacher conferences — whom I really worried about not making it — had realized their potential and found their passion.
We know that every child has a potential to be better than they are. And it’s easy to say that all students can learn, but believing it ourselves and making them believe it — and do it — requires a seismic shift in the way we currently perceive one another.
In his New York Magazine article, How Not to Talk to Your Kids - The inverse power of praise, Po Bronson discusses a child named Thomas who, since he could walk, had heard how smart he was. When he applied to kindergarten, his intelligence was statistically confirmed — he didn’t just score in the top one percent. He scored in the top one percent of the top one percent.
But as Thomas progressed through school, his awareness of how smart he was didn’t always work in his favor. In fact, when faced with things he felt he wouldn’t be successful at, he backed away. His father recalled the many things that came very quickly to him. But when they didn’t, Thomas gave up almost immediately. He had divided the world into two — things he was naturally good at and things he wasn’t.
Data over the decades shows that a large percentage of all gifted students (those in the top 10% of aptitude test scores) severely underestimate their own abilities. Those afflicted with this lack of perceived competence adopt lower standards for success and expect less of themselves. They underrate the importance of effort, and they overrate how much help they need from a parent.
The impact of parent praise
A survey by Columbia University showed that 85% of American parents think it’s important to tell their kids that they’re smart. In reality, pretty much everyone does it, habitually. Is the constant praise meant to ensure that children do not sell their talents short?
A growing body of research — and a new study from the front lines of the New York public-school system — strongly suggests it might be the other way around. Praising kids for smartness and giving them the label of “gifted” does not prevent them from under-performing. It might actually be the cause of it.
Sara Sparks, in an Education Week article, says that educators are attempting to change the historical and prejudicial ideals that perpetuate low expectations of under-performing students. Sparks comments that the mindset of a child, his parents and his teacher all serve to impact academic success. If you believe you can’t, you won’t — and if you can’t, you won’t be expected to.
One example of this transitioning approach is chemistry teacher Anthony McElligott who, instead of calling on the first student to raise a hand, waits for all his students raise their hands. He feels that this approach puts the focus on the process of learning rather than on the race.
Thanks to the insightful research of Drs. Carol Dweck and Lisa Blackwell of Stanford University, starting with kids as young as 4 years old, this strategic shift in how we approach (academic) success and failure now has a proper name. It is now referred to as a “mindset” — specifically a growth mindset.
Some background: As a Yale graduate student, Dweck studied animal motivation —specifically “learned helplessness.” Animals sometimes didn’t do what they were capable of because they’d given up from repeat failures. She wondered ‘What makes a really capable child give up in the face of failure, where other children may be motivated by the failure?’”
Dweck proposed that the difference between the helpless response and the determination to surmount challenges — lay in people’s beliefs about why they had failed. She thought that people who attributed their failures to lack of ability would become discouraged even in areas where they were capable. Those who thought they simply hadn’t tried hard enough, on the other hand, would be fueled by setbacks.
Dweck and her team describe the growth mindset paradigm in 3 major components - Intelligence develops over time, effort is paramount to smartness, and failure is an integral part of success.
Growth over time
Intelligence and ability are malleable qualities that continue to be cultivated over time — in contrast to the belief that we are what we are born with. So instead of focusing on how smart or gifted a child is, students are re-oriented toward the fact that through persistence and effort, they can master the challenges set before them.
By reinforcing the importance of learning from both criticism and the success of others, growth mindset strategies help students reach a higher level of achievement. Sadly, when kids think they have a fixed ability, they tend to plateau before realizing their full potential.
Dweck first linked students’ motivation to the way they perceived intelligence. Students who believed that their intelligence (or skill set) could be improved with effort and experimentation sought challenges, learned from mistakes and kept faith in themselves in the face of failure. They were more apt to take risks; they were more interested in learning from mistakes and less concerned with how others view them.
In comparison, a “fixed mindset” assumes that character, intelligence, and creative ability are static, fixed. Since the individual perceives that these abilities cannot change in any meaningful way, their success is affirmed by how they measure up against others. Striving for success and avoiding failure at all costs become a way of maintaining the sense of being smart or skilled. Students who believe that their intelligence is something they were born with tend to be discouraged by failure and are reluctant to challenge themselves.
When kids realize and accept the fact that their intelligence can grow and develop, they have a greater desire to learn, to persevere and embrace challenges. Effort is born out of seeing an ability not as something inherent that needs to be demonstrated but rather as a desire for something that can be developed.
A growth mindset also allows for failure. Mistakes and setbacks are a natural part of learning. Failure is an opportunity for growth.
David Dockterman, Scholastic’s chief architect of learning sciences and an adjunct lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, says that kids don’t mind failing. He reminds us that when kids play video games, they fail most of the time, but they look at failure there as an opportunity to learn and improve.
Relevance for educators
A growth mindset approach has been repeatedly shown to have powerful ramifications on student motivation and learning, and ultimate academic success. When teachers and students focus on improvement rather than on smartness, kids learn a lot more.
Teachers often confuse instilling growth mindset concepts with getting kids to try harder. Dweck says that a child can’t be told to try hard without receiving the strategies and support for their efforts. When a student is praised for using strategies of effort, persistence and improvement, it puts the focus on the power of learning.
Dockterman says however, many students can find school mistakes humiliating. It’s all about how you set it up. Kids hear how you say things. When a teacher offers a scenario that begins a new unit by saying, “Let’s start with an easy one,” this may discourage struggling students or those who get the problem wrong. A teacher that introduces that same scenario by saying “This might take a few tries” might have a different outcome by setting students more at ease.
Growth mindset strategies are not only applicable to education but to sports, business, interpersonal relationships and more. Morality is also linked to a mindset. Whereas young children may not always have beliefs about ability, they do have ideas about goodness. Many kids believe they’re invariably good or bad; other kids think they can get better at being good.
In the end, these insightful concepts remind us to focus on the passion for learning rather than a hunger for approval.
For more information about growth mindset and Dweck’s research into the power of belief and how changing a mindset can have profound impacts on raising and educating successful children, check out her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.
Laurie Futterman ARNP is a former Heart Transplant Coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.