Willingham's cognitive principle is children differ in intelligence, but the good news is intelligence can be improved through persistent hard work. This has been the Asian educational view for a long time, although with Dr. Dweck's growth mindset ideas, Western thought is changing in that direction. Intelligence is essentially how "people reason well and catch on to new ideas quickly." The current view of intelligence is that there is a general intelligence (g), which contributes to verbal and mathematical intelligence. Therefore, verbal scores are related to math scores, although individual verbal scores relate closer to each other. The "g" is not clearly known, but could be related to the speed or capacity of working memory.
What Makes People Intelligent?
It's the classic nature vs. nature debate; is it genetics or the environment that makes people intelligent? Through many twin studies, genes are responsible for about 50 percent of our smartness. What's interesting is that is starts off young, about 20 percent, then increases to about 60 percent in later life. The bottom line: genetic effects can make people seek out or select different environments. For example, imagine you start off life with a little better memory, more persistence, or simply more curiosity. Your parents pick up on this trait subtly, and begin to use a larger vocabulary or discuss deeper-thinking ideas. This leads you to spend more time with "smarter" kids, and grades become a natural focus. On the other hand, genetically you may not have the physical abilities, which leads you to avoid many sports and instead pick up a book and read instead.
Though genetics plays a large role, intelligence is malleable and can be improved.
Implications for the Classroom
Praise Effort, Not Ability
You want kids to understand they are in control of their intelligence. Praise effort, persistence, and taking responsibility for the work. Be careful of insincere praise, as kids are not easily fooled.
Hard Work Pays Off
Remind students that it takes hard work to be smart, just like it takes hard work and practice to be a successful athlete; natural talent can only take you so far.
Failure leads to Learning
Again, the most successful people (think entrepreneurs, inventors, athletes) take risks and fail in order to succeed. Michael Jordan talks about all his mistakes and failures on the court, which ultimately led to his greatest successes. Remind students that failure is not necessarily embarrassing or negative; it's an opportunity to learn something new.
Study Skills are Necessary
Help struggling students with techniques and methods of effective studying, memorizing, and organizing their time. They need to be self-disciplined and resourceful, as well.
Catching Up is the Goal
In order to catch up with the brighter students, they will need to work even harder than them. There is no easy solution or magic pill. They may need to revamp their entire schedule and drop activities that do not contribute to their educational goals.
Show Confidence in Them
As a teacher, set high standards and expect students to meet them. If they do an substandard job, simply state what they have done and give them feedback for improvement. Do not overpraise them for a mediocre job.
PERSONAL VS. SITUATIONAL
Pessimist: "I'm dumb."
Optimist: "That was a challenging test."
Pessimist: "I always get stuck with a weak partner."
Optimist: "I need to help my partner improve."
PERMANENT VS. SHORT-LIVED
Pessimist: "That team always beats us."
Optimist: "We are learning what it will take to beat them."
Pessimist: "I'll never figure out how to do math."
Optimist: "I'll need to spend extra time practicing these problems at home."
PERVASIVE VS. SPECIFIC
Pessimist: "There's no way I can find the time to do all of this. I have soccer practice tonight. My teacher gives me too much homework."
Optimist: "I'll have to use my time more wisely in class. If I spend 45 minutes a night studying, I can get my assignments completed."
Source: adapted from The Champion's Comeback, Jim Afremow, (2016)
Fixed: I can't execute this skill.
Growth: I'm going to devote more practice time to honing this skill.
Fixed: I am so embarrassed by this mistake.
Growth: I will learn from this mistake.
Fixed: I should be able to make changes quickly.
Growth: It takes time and effort to build winning habits.
Fixed: The other player (or team) is too good.
Growth: Playing against good players (or teams) is one of the best ways to improve my own performance.
Source: The Champion's Comeback, Jim Afremow (2016)
What does it take to become an expert in a field? Conventional wisdom tells you do something for 10000 hours, and voila, you’re an expert! No, says K. Anders Ericsson, an expert in the field of expert-level skill acquisition, who’s a professor psychology at Florida State University. It’s not how much time your spend learning, but how you use that time. Experts parse their learning into tiny slices or segments, practice that one action endlessly, but most importantly, they observe what’s happening and make imperceptible adjustments to improve. This goes for athletes, surgeons, chefs or spelling bee champions. Ericsson refers to this as deliberate practice: small tasks are repeated with immediate feedback, correction and experimentation.
The question is this: Are our students and we as teachers engaging in deliberate practice? Or are we just doing the same things over and over, without knowing what and how to change? Are we improving over time and growing, or just spinning our wheels in the mud?
(Source: Work Rules!, Laszlo Bock)
Dr. Carol Dweck has studied this area extensively. A fixed mindset is where a person is very pessimistic. They believe that their personal qualities are unalterable and negative experiences reveal their inherent limitations. The growth mindset is one where people assume that effort and dedication will shape achievement and failure is just an obstacle to overcome.
To support the growth mindset, we should praise effort and limit criticism of our students. Also, more importantly, we should encourage children's pursuit of challenges and focus proactively and what they can do right now to take on those challenges.
I think even as teachers we sometimes fall prey to the fixed mindset. We might look at a student and feel as if nothing is going to change, that today will be just like yesterday. But we need to remember to use our concerted effort and come up with fresh, creative solutions to overcome the present-day obstacle. As Albert Einstein once said: "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."
Daniel H. Lee
This blog will be dedicated to sharing in three areas: happenings in my classroom and school; analysis and distillation of other educators' wealth of knowledge in various texts; insights from other disciplines and areas of expertise that relate and connect with educational practices.