Is school success determined by ability? Effort? Or both?

Psychologist Carol Dweck of Stanford University examined both areas and comes up with some startling conclusions about school success. Dweck explains: “because 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, her research suggests almost the opposite. That is, when your entire focus is concentrated on intelligence or talent it can actually creates the opposite effect, such as individuals who are vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unwilling to change. A survey conducted in the 1990s showed that 85 percent of parents believed that praising children’s ability when they perform well got them to feel smart. However Dweck’s research shows that praising kids’ intelligence actually makes them feel fragile and defensive. Further, she believes that so-called smart kids can often coast through the early grades under the impression that no-effort academic achievement defines them as smart or gifted. Such children often believe that intelligence is a fixed mindset and to strive is simply not as important as being or looking smart. Further they see challenges as mistakes and even effort as threats to their ego rather than opportunities to improve? Worse they can lose confidence and motivation when the work is no longer easy for them. Conversely, Dweck believes that teaching kids to have a growth mindset causes a focus on process (personal effort and effective strategies) rather than on intelligence or talent which helps make them into higher achievers in school and in life.

Instead, she says, “We should focus more on generic praise that suggests a stable trait — such as “You did a good job drawing or I like the detail you added to the people’s faces.” Or, “I like the way you tried a lot of different strategies on that math problem until you finally got it.” Such praise for a specific process the child accomplishes fosters motivation and confidence by focusing children on actions that lead to success.

Dweck came to the conclusion that there are two views of intelligence or two classes of learners: The first is students who believe intelligence is a fixed mindset. This group views mistakes as blocks to their confidence that attack their ability, which leads to the notion that if I have to work hard than I am dumb! On the other hand, the students with a growth mindset perceived intelligence as changeable that can be developed through education and hard work. In short, mistakes are actually challenging and energizing and offer opportunities for greater learning. According to Dweck, such students with this mindset are destined for greater success and actually out-perform those students who viewed intelligence as fixed. In fact, she lists one study that compared two groups of sixth-grade students who tested the same on a math achievement test. The following year the fixed mindset students scored one grade lower than the growth mindset students.

Her research also looked at industry and in particular managers. She found that managers with a fixed mindset had difficulty taking suggestions and advice from others, whereas mangers with a growth mindset saw themselves as works in progress and understand that they need feedback to improve. The same might be applied to gifted athletes who are recognized as phenoms at an early age but flame out before they get to the big time relying entirely on their abilities rather than putting forth hard work. Bottom line? Students need to focus on process and hard work  rather than purely on innate ability — the results could astound you.

David Sortino Ph.D.,a Graton resident,is director of The Neurofeedback Institute. E-mail him at