During my six years of teaching, I regularly heard kids comment about how they were "smart" or "dumb" or "good" at reading or "bad" at writing. These sorts of comments always bothered me, because my students often discussed their prowess at reading and writing (or anything, for that matter) as if it was something that they had no control over. As if you're just born smart the way you're born with brown or blonde hair.
I found myself trying over and over to help my students understand the deeply held belief I have that no one is inherently dumb or smart. Surely, there are natural aptitudes for certain things, but that doesn't preclude us from developing skills in other areas. Ultimately, we choose the things that we care about most, we put time and effort into those things, and we increase our skills through practice. Ask the "smart" kids in school what they do for fun. I would wager that the vast majority of them would have reading near the top of their lists. Ask the kids who are "good" at school what their secret is? No secret--they actually do their work.
I did an analysis of my students' grades the last year I taught to search for commonalities among my top performing students. My goal was to help my struggling students to see tangible changes they could make in their own habits to improve their performance. I was shocked by how obvious the results of my unofficial study were. What I found was that my highest scoring students in every class...
- had no missing work
- had turned in few if any assignments late
- had met their goal for at home reading (which was a significant portion of their grade)
My first year teaching, I had a student who really struggled with his grades. He was barely getting a D in the class, and I had started working with him to get caught up. I worked out a plan with him and his parents for him to come after school and get some help (really, I just wanted him to have some scheduled and supervised work time). One day, after he'd been coming for awhile (and seeing his grade improve, I might add), he looked up from his desk, and said to me, "Hey, Miss Wright, do you know what I figured out?"
"What?" I asked him, expecting to hear something related to the assignment he was scribbling away on.
Then, with complete sincerity, as if he'd honestly never thought of it before, he revealed, "If you do your work, you get good grades."
This was January, mind you. Of his seventh grade year. How is it possible that he'd gone through seven and a half years of school (assuming he didn't go to preschool) and never understood this? Up until that point, success in school for him was a matter of luck. If you were smart, you did well. If you were dumb, well, there wasn't much you could do to succeed. But, in that moment, he realized that he was the master of his fate. And, after that, he became a student who typically got Bs instead of Ds.
Where does this erroneous idea come from? I don't think we're born with fatalistic self-perceptions of stupidity, or of our own brilliance for that matter. We acquire them over time based on personal experience and expectations others have for us.
SO what do we do about it?
Easy solution, right? We just make sure to tell our kids they are smart, and they'll believe us, so they'll work hard, and then they will be smart. No problem.
Here's the truth, though. Telling someone they are smart can be as bad as telling them they are dumb. I was recently reading an article in which the author discusses a study of two groups of fifth grade students:
After [taking a test], one group was told, “You must be smart.” The other group was told, “You must have worked hard.” When a second test was offered to the students, they were told that it would be harder and that they didn’t have to take it. Ninety percent of the kids who heard “you must be smart” opted not to take it. Why? They feared proving that the affirmation may be false. Of the second group, most of the kids chose to take the test, and while they didn’t do well, Dweck’s researchers heard them whispering under their breath, “This is my favorite test.” They loved the challenge. Finally, a third test was given, equally as hard as the first one. The result? The first group of students who were told they were smart, did worse. The second group did 30% better. Dweck concludes that our affirmation of kids must target factors in their control. When we say “you must have worked hard,” we are praising effort, which they have full control over. It tends to elicit more effort. When we praise smarts, it may provide a little confidence at first but ultimately causes a child to work less. They say to themselves, “If it doesn’t come easy, I don’t want to do it.”
So here's my plea: let's teach our kids (and ourselves) that "being smart" is something you can control, that it's really about knowing what's worth your time and effort and understanding that it takes effort to succeed at most anything that is worthwhile...and then going to work.
Even Albert Einstein said, “It is not that I'm so smart. But I stay with the questions much longer.”
Perhaps we (Ol' Al included) need to change our thinking to realize that sticking with things and pushing through the tough stuff IS smart. If we treat being smart as a skill to develop rather than an inherent characteristic, we grant ourselves and others the freedom and confidence to take control of our achievements...and thereby reach for things we didn't know were within our grasp.
Dream big. Now, there's a smart idea.