11 December 2007

Teaching Self-Esteem Backfires! Teach a Child to Enjoy a Challenge, Instead

Parents and teachers have been misled for many years--lured by the siren song of "self-esteem" to ruin a child's chances for success. Stop doing that!
...more than 30 years of scientific investigation suggests that an overemphasis on intellect or talent leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unwilling to remedy their shortcomings.

The result plays out in children like Jonathan, who coast through the early grades under the dangerous notion that no-effort academic achievement defines them as smart or gifted. Such children hold an implicit belief that intelligence is innate and fixed, making striving to learn seem far less important than being (or looking) smart. This belief also makes them see challenges, mistakes and even the need to exert effort as threats to their ego rather than as opportunities to improve. And it causes them to lose confidence and motivation when the work is no longer easy for them.

Praising children’s innate abilities, as Jonathan’s parents did, reinforces this mind-set, which can also prevent young athletes or people in the workforce and even marriages from living up to their potential. On the other hand, our studies show that teaching people to have a “growth mind-set,” which encourages a focus on effort rather than on intelligence or talent, helps make them into high achievers in school and in life.

...the most persistent students do not ruminate about their own failure much at all but instead think of mistakes as problems to be solved. At the University of Illinois in the 1970s I, along with my then graduate student Carol Diener, asked 60 fifth graders to think out loud while they solved very difficult pattern-recognition problems. Some students reacted defensively to mistakes, denigrating their skills with comments such as “I never did have a good rememory,” and their problem-solving strategies deteriorated.

Others, meanwhile, focused on fixing errors and honing their skills. One advised himself: “I should slow down and try to figure this out.” Two schoolchildren were particularly inspiring. One, in the wake of difficulty, pulled up his chair, rubbed his hands together, smacked his lips and said, “I love a challenge!” The other, also confronting the hard problems, looked up at the experimenter and approvingly declared, “I was hoping this would be informative!” Predictably, the students with this attitude outperformed their cohorts in these studies.

...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.

The author of the SciAm Mind article may have her terminology a bit confused, but the underlying idea is sound: ability--competence--is malleable and can be developed through hard work and training. Intelligence is the component behind the capacity for competence. Intelligence was always there, waiting to be trained. It is safe to say that no children are trained to use their intelligence to its fullest.

In fact, with the abysmal performance of schools--still teaching self-esteem, thus teaching failure--it is safe to say that the disconnect between intelligence and performance can be vast indeed.

Psychological neoteny is lifelong incompetence--the learned helplessness of an incompetent adolescent that persists throughout the person's lifetime. But no one needs to be incompetent. Each person capable of basic schooling contains a core of competence that can be trained and developed. Government schools appear designed to create and permanently instill psychological neoteny.

If government school methods of teaching are worse than worthless, you might think that the methods could be changed. But you would be wrong to think that. Few things are as impervious to improvement as government schools. Much better to scrap the system entirely--at least the poorest performing 40%--and hand over the responsibility to outside groups more in contact with the last few decades' findings in the neuroscience of learning.

We are spending a lot of money to ruin our children. How stupid is that?

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Blogger Audacious Epigone said...

“I was hoping this would be informative!”

A fifth grader made that statement in the presence of 59 other kids and some adult researchers? In addition to be doggedly determined, the kid is also quite precocious!

Thursday, 13 December, 2007  
Blogger al fin said...

Yes, I noticed that as well.

I plan to revisit my earlier posting dealing with IQ, Emotional IQ, and Executive Function.

It's pretty clear that genetics is heavily involved in all three, and I think that EF and EIQ may explain a lot of the variance in success variables that IQ doesn't.

Sunday, 16 December, 2007  

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“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

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