Sunday, May 15, 2011

How smart students end up dumb (and dishonest)

As a kid, I wanted to be a genius. I loved those genius movies like Phenonomen and Searching for Bobby Fischer where someone came out of nowhere to demonstrate a complete understanding of everything that was way beyond what everyone else had. I wanted to be genius smart. It is a dream I have had to give up. Recently I have been reading and applying some research that makes me feel somewhat better about this.

Researchers working under Carol Dweck at Stanford University took groups of twelve and thirteen year-old students in the beginning years of junior high. The students were made to do ten questions from an IQ test, designed to be easy for their age group. Almost all did very well; on average they answered eight of the ten questions correctly. The students were then split into two groups. One group were told “You did very well with these questions, you must have worked really hard”. The other group were told “You did very well with these questions, you must be really smart.


As I said, I always wanted to be smart. My sister read The Ugly American when she was twelve. My father saw her reading it and said “It’s great to see Kate reading a proper grown-up book”. I must have read the thing five or six times trying to get the same comment.  Kids love being told that they are smart. So as a teacher or a parent the temptation to do so is enormous. My parents told me I was smart plenty, but it was never enough for me. I always wanted more. Turns out, it wasn’t really good for me.

The researchers at Stanford then tried to measure difference between the two groups they had created with their single line of praise. First they asked the students if they would like to do some harder questions.  The ‘smart’ students were far more likely to want to stay with the easier questions – why take the risk that you’re not smart after all? Then given the rest of the test, the ‘smart’ kids tested lower overall. They were paying attention to the results rather than to the process. Finally, and this is my favourite part, the researchers asked the kids to write a letter to students at another school about their experience with the study. The ‘smart’ kids were far more likely to inflate their results. They lied to complete strangers. Because all of us desperately want to be smart.

Dweck labels these two groups as those with a ‘Fixed’ mindset and those in a ‘Growth’ mindset.  The students who were told that they were smart were psychologically primed to think of being smart as an intrinsic quality of them as people. Something fixed from birth. This made them risk averse, less involved in what they were doing, more focussed on results and more likely to cheat.  Those whose praise emphasised effort were primed to see results on the test as being the result of things they could control like effort and concentration. They were seeing their capability as something that they could grow and improve over time. This made them keen to try harder work (as harder work leads to more growth), more focussed on what they were doing and less likely to want to lie to strangers about their results as their results did not define them as a person.

Other studies by Dweck and her colleagues examine these fixed and growth mindsets in the community at large and the ways in which they are formed.  The idea is a great insight for teachers because it offers such enormous leverage. Really taking on this idea of mindset has fundamentally changed how I look at everything in my job.  It has changed every interaction with my students. It has resulted in the kind of improvement and growth that once I didn’t believe in.  And over time, I’m beginning to get over my intense childhood desire to be Bobby Fischer.

For more about mindset you can have a look at Carol Dweck’s book Mindset : The new psychology of success. Another great source is the first chapter of Po Bronson and Ashley Merriman’s book Nutureshock which is both shorter and perhaps a more entertaining read. It is inevitable that I will come back to this topic later.

1 comment:

  1. we are about to embark on the annual mid-year exams (2 weeks out)..... I hope I haven't left it too late but will try this little modification to my feedback and see if we see a change??????

    My own children definitley bear this out

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