How To Raise Smart Kids

Is Scientific American telling us that teachers should give “an A for effort”? From the article The Secret to Raising Smart Kids by Carol Dweck:

[A]ttributing 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.

I may have cherry picked this quote unfairly, but nonetheless, my experience tells me something else is going on here.

It seems almost self-evidently true (a “duh” thing, really), that kids (or anyone) who thinks their intelligence is fixed will also think that if something is difficult for them, then it is their deficiency that is to blame. They might as well not try. Next step, run away!

I contend that the popular culture has worsened the problem, particularly since the days of Ferris Bueller, by 1) making effortless success seem “cool” (and the only real measure of intelligence) and 2) conflating cleverness with intelligence. The sad result is that anyone who achieves success has to be seen as born with it (because effort delegitimizes the success) and cheating becomes justified (because short cuts are clever). We’ve popularized the idea that success must seem effortless, no matter what.

I used to teach the martial arts, and my Sensi’s goal was to have us teach it to anyone who came through the door. Everyone it touched, he reasoned, would benefit, and so I had students who ranged in age from 3 and a half (cute little blond girl – with parents watching over) to a 64 year old gentleman (who wanted to feel a little more secure in his job at St. Elisabeth’s). Because there was so such thing a social promotion, every student participated fully, even to sparing. The one thing not allowed was the word “can’t”.

How do you teach a student “You can” when he or she insists “I can’t”?

Seems obvious, doesn’t it? First the teacher must be able. Period. Second, the teacher must know, positively, that yes indeed, the student can. Usually, that’s easy. Sheesh – for me, it was as each as knowing (and believing) that if I can do it, anyone can. Often, the teacher has seen others do it (whatever it is) with far larger obstacles in the way. Finally, the teacher must be willing to make the effort to help the student over his particular hurdles. That’s harder, and often depends on the teacher’s experience. Is it any different teaching math to 9 year olds?

I realize that teaching a small group of self-selected, and therefore motivated, people is different than the situation in a public school, but it ain’t that different. The answers look the same to me regardless.

So no, raising smarter kids is not a matter of rewarding effort, or even rewarding success (though it seems that little rewards for success at intervals works effectively in most cultures). It’s much more important to make the – not child, the student, for it applies to all of us – understand that the limitations we place on ourselves are the biggest obstacles to our success. And we can almost certainly always remove those.

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