Why Our Beliefs About Intelligence Matter More than Our Actual Intelligence…

In second grade I began to hate math class vigorously (to be clear about my feelings I actually scribbled “I HATE MATH” on the borders of just about every class assignment).  It began when the class was required to memorize our multiplication tables. At the end of every week, our teacher gave us a timed test where we were instructed to answer as many multiplication questions as we could within five minutes.

Those tests made my self-esteem plummet. As soon as our pencils hit the paper my mind went blank. It was like something in my brain just clamped shut. While the other kids were writing furiously, my own hand couldn’t form a single answer. Once time expired, I fled to the bathroom to hide my tears and wallow in self-pity.

As a second grader I formed a simple explanation for my struggles with multiplication—I sucked at math. It didn’t take long for “I suck at math” to become an unshakable belief in my brain. I truly believed that my intelligence (especially with regard to math) was fixed. On the occasions when I did earn an ‘A’, I regarded it as a kind of fluke rather than proof that maybe I could get “smarter” at math.

I brought up this example because I recently read an article by an educational psychologist (Carol Dweck) who argues that there are two types of learners. There are learners who perceive their intelligence as fixed (me), and learners who believe that they can become smarter through increased effort.

Learners who perceive their intelligence as malleable are more likely to view struggle as a natural part of learning and are more likely to earn high grades. In comparison, learners who believe their abilities are innate are less likely to put forth effort or persist through challenges.

It makes sense right? As a student I was probably more likely to give up on a math problem than another student who believed their intelligence was malleable—because I believed my math skills were limited. If I didn’t get a problem quickly, it confirmed my assumption that I “couldn’t do math” and I gave up.

Naturally, Dweck’s research makes me wonder how much of my struggles with math were actually a reflection of my innate limitations vs. a reflection of firmly held beliefs or self-fulfilling prophecies. Is it possible I could have experienced more success in math class if I had believed that effort could make me incrementally smarter?

Alright, I know I’m talking a lot about my own experiences here, but I promise this piece isn’t just about me. I think this is important information for those of us who care about the achievement gap. That’s because perceptions of fixed intelligence are particularly problematic for Black and Latino students who may internalize negative racial stereotypes which imply that Blacks and Latinos are less intelligent than their White or Asian counterparts.

The good news is that we can change (at least to a degree) the way kids think about their intelligence just by the way we talk about learning. One approach is to actually teach kids some basic neurology. For example, teachers can share some age-appropriate readings about neuroscience experiments that document brain growth. Research has documented that kids who learn that the brain is like a muscle, which grows stronger the more it is worked actually experience learning gains.

It is also important for us to re-think some of our cultural attitudes towards learning. Studies that compare American and Japanese students reveal that Japanese kids view struggle as a normal part of learning, while American kids assume that struggle is a sign of stupidity. Educators can help curb these attitudes by emphasizing that struggle is a normal part of the learning.

Furthermore, we can use praise to reinforce ideas about malleable intelligence and to normalize struggle. For example, educational psychologist Carol Dweck argues that it is much better to praise students for effort than to tell them that they’re smart. Dweck argues that when children perform well on an assignment and we say, “wow, look how smart you are”, rather than “I’m impressed by the amount of effort you put into this”, we send the message that achievement is determined by innate abilities rather than by effort. Dweck’s research also documents that children who are praised for being smart are less likely to take on new challenges or academic risks because they wish to preserve the image that they are smart. Such children are also less likely to study because they are led to believe that learning should be effortless.

I’m not sure why some kids develop the attitude that intelligence is fixed, while other kids don’t. However, for adults I think the course of action is clear. The way we talk to kids about their learning experiences can send powerful messages—and can shape or distort the way kids think about their ability to succeed. It’s quite possible that our beliefs in our own abilities may be more reliable predictors of future success than any measure of intelligence.

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