Saturday, January 08, 2011

Focus on effort, not talent

Yesterday, I wrote about Amy Chua's self-congratulatory article in the Wall Street Journal on her authoritarian approach to parenting. I came across a wonderfully well written response to that article today in a blog by a Piano teacher:

I agree with this blogger wholeheartedly that the other extreme of ascribing success to talent instead of effort is not a helpful approach to parenting either. It reminded me of the following article by Carol Dweck that appeared in the Scientific American in 2007, which makes this very point nicely:

Carol Dweck writes that what distinguishes successful learners from unsuccessful ones is a growth-oriented mindset that focuses on effort, not talent:
Several years later I developed a broader theory of what separates the two general classes of learners—helpless versus mastery-oriented. I realized that these different types of students not only explain their failures differently, but they also hold different “theories” of intelligence. The helpless ones believe that intelligence is a fixed trait: you have only a certain amount, and that’s that. I call this a “fixed mind-set.” Mistakes crack their self-confidence because they attribute errors to a lack of ability, which they feel powerless to change. They avoid challenges because challenges make mistakes more likely and looking smart less so. Like Jonathan, such children shun effort in the belief that having to work hard means they are dumb.
The mastery-oriented children, on the other hand, think intelligence is malleable and can be developed through education and hard work. They want to learn above all else. After all, if you believe that you can expand your intellectual skills, you want to do just that. Because slipups stem from a lack of effort, not ability, they can be remedied by more effort. Challenges are energizing rather than intimidating; they offer opportunities to learn. Students with such a growth mind-set, we predicted, were destined for greater academic success and were quite likely to outperform their counterparts.
We validated these expectations in a study published in early 2007. Psychologists Lisa Blackwell of Columbia University and Kali H. Trzes­niewski of Stanford University and I monitored 373 students for two years during the transition to junior high school, when the work gets more difficult and the grading more stringent, to determine how their mind-sets might affect their math grades. At the beginning of seventh grade, we assessed the students’ mind-sets by asking them to agree or disagree with statements such as “Your intelligence is something very basic about you that you can’t really change.” We then assessed their beliefs about other aspects of learning and looked to see what happened to their grades.
As we had predicted, the students with a growth mind-set felt that learning was a more important goal in school than getting good grades. In addition, they held hard work in high regard, believing that the more you labored at something, the better you would become at it. They understood that even geniuses have to work hard for their great accomplishments. Confronted by a setback such as a disappointing test grade, students with a growth mind-set said they would study harder or try a different strategy for mastering the material.
The students who held a fixed mind-set, however, were concerned about looking smart with little regard for learning. They had negative views of effort, believing that having to work hard at something was a sign of low ability. They thought that a person with talent or intelligence did not need to work hard to do well. Attributing a bad grade to their own lack of ability, those with a fixed mind-set said that they would study less in the future, try never to take that subject again and consider cheating on future tests.
Such divergent outlooks had a dramatic impact on performance. At the start of junior high, the math achievement test scores of the students with a growth mind-set were comparable to those of students who displayed a fixed mind-set. But as the work became more difficult, the students with a growth mind-set showed greater persistence. As a result, their math grades overtook those of the other students by the end of the first semester—and the gap between the two groups continued to widen during the two years we followed them.
Dweck concludes that the key to raising smart children is to inculcate in them a growth-oriented mindset. She writes that "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." She argues that it is far better to commend them for their effort, to emphasize the brain's ability to grow, and share with them stories of people (e.g.,  mathematicians) who are successful because they pursue their interests with passion and hard work.

I also recommend another recent book that makes the same point: Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, by Geoff Colvin.


Anonymous said...

First of all, thank you so much for the mention/link (and great blog!) I've read the study you discuss and wholeheartedly agree. The idea of "talent" (which is extremely limiting) is unfortunately so ingrained in North American culture that I've found it can take years of teaching to dispel...if at all. Most children will automatically classify themselves as being "good" or "bad" at every subject. If they're "good", they don't need to work at it to get better, and if they're "bad" (untalented) all the effort in the world won't help them get better! Ergo, work is unnecessary (a rather convenient conclusion from the child's perspective!)

You've probably heard of the ten thousand hour theory, in which it was shown that experts in any discipline (music, sports, computer programming...) needed to put in at least 10,000 hours of "deliberate practice" before they reached this level of mastery. It didn't matter whether they started as "talented", "average" or "below average" - what ensured ultimate success was focused, intelligent and consistent effort, with plenty of self-feedback and correction for mistakes.

On that topic, one of the best things a teacher in any discipline can teach is the ability to analyze and correct one's own performance. One of my most common questions in teaching when a student needs help with a piece is "Ok, so what needs fixing here?" Only once they've told me (in their own words) what they find difficult or what notes they played incorrectly do I help them "fix" it. The point, of course, is that sooner or later they shouldn't need me to give them feedback at all. Unfortunately, children tend to be so spoon-fed with information (by teachers, parents, the media, the Internet) that they're all but bewildered when asked to come up with an answer themselves. It generally takes at least a year or two of teaching before they get used to the idea that I'm there to ask questions far more than provide answers.

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