‘You’ll need to be patient with him, he’s not very smart’.
Promoth, the 10-year-old Sri Lankan kid I was to start tutoring smiled shyly and looked down at his feet, as if in quiet agreement with his mother.
Back in 2002 I was in my final year of undergraduate studies and was tutoring young students to earn some extra pocket money. I was horrified by what Promoth’s mother had just said and knew it was wrong on so many fronts. Based on the grades he’d made in school, she had given him a label that he’d come to accept as his identity.
A dumb kid.
How A Sense of Identity Affects Performance
Since I re-entered the education industry in 2013 I’ve seen this same sort of labelling hurt so many bright young minds.
And many parents and educators continue to make the same mistake.
They see a student’s academic results and take that as indication of the child’s cognitive abilities instead of a reflection of how that child has been taught, the study habits he has developed over time and how much effort he’s put in.
The most powerful and liberating truth any and every child should be taught is that learning is a skill. And the same way they can learn how to play tennis or golf better, they can learn how to learn better.
But it’s not just negative labelling that’s harmful. Research shows that constantly telling your child he’s a smart kid could be just as bad. For many students, it creates a fixed identity they feel compelled to protect, often with disastrous consequences.
Building A Growth Mindset
An insightful book which should be compulsory reading for every parent and educator (actually, for every human being) is ‘Mindset: The New Psychology of Success’ by Prof. Carol Dweck. She carried out one of the most comprehensive studies on how praise/feedback affects the performance of young students in school.
Prof. Dweck split students into 2 groups and got them to take a very easy test.
Afterwards, she praised the first set of students for their intelligence and said they must have gotten really good grades because they were very smart.
The second set of students she praised for their effort and told them they must have performed well because they worked so hard on the test.
Then she offered the kids an opportunity to take another test.
Only 67% of the kids who had been praised for their innate intelligence (fixed mindset) agreed to write a new test while 92% of the kids who had been praised for effort (growth mindset) were willing to have another go.
The next test was designed to be much, much harder. Most of the kids in the Fixed Mindset group gave up, some of them flinging their test papers away and calling it a dumb test. The kids in the Growth Mindset group however kept at it until they were asked to stop.
Prof. Carol then got both sets of kids to take a third test that was just as easy as the initial one they took.
Here’s the scary part.
The kids from the Fixed Mindset group scored 20% lower than they did on their first test while the kids from the Growth Mindset group scored 30% higher.
Her studies show that people who are praised for innate intelligence tend to shy away or give up quickly on challenges that threaten their ‘smart’ identity. Kids with a growth mindset, however, don’t connect the outcome of such tests with their sense of self-worth and are likely to demonstrate more grit.
The child or adult hears “oh you think I’m brilliant and talented, that’s why you admire me- that’s why you value me. I’d better not do anything to disprove that”
Teach Them to Embrace The Struggle
The human brain is incredibly fascinating. Neuroscience shows us that our brain has the ability to rewire and upgrade itself to gain competence in new skills and consolidate new knowledge.
That effort, that strain which makes many students give up in frustration while struggling to understand a new concept is simply the brain stepping up to a new task.
Jungles of neurons in the brain string together to consolidate the information and through a process called myelination, those neural networks are wired firmly together.
So the first few times a student tackles a new problem in Calculus, it almost feels like he can hear his brain creaking from the strain.
At EF Academy, we teach our students this isn’t an indication of limited cognitive ability; rather it’s a sign that their brain is stepping up to the challenge of a new task. In the words of Brendon Burchard, we teach them to ‘honour the struggle’.
They’re exercising their grey (and white) matter. If they stick with it long enough they’ll break through to the other side, acquiring new skills and understanding new academic concepts.
The most powerful gift you could give your kids is to help them understand that learning is a skill and the struggle means they are growing.
Benjamin Hardy, author of ‘Willpower Doesn’t Work’ explains in his book that many of us misunderstand confidence. People don’t do well because they are confident. Rather confidence is a by-product, a direct reflection of previous successful actions.
When your kids successfully push through barriers of discomfort to learn a new concept or acquire a new skill, it builds a self-reinforcing loop that boosts their confidence.
“I’m a learner. I may not understand this yet, but if I keep at it long enough I’ll eventually figure it out”
And whenever you tell them ‘you can be anything you want to be’ they’ll believe you. Because they understand that success is simply about acquiring new skills and relevant knowledge.
They understand that learning is a skill which anyone can develop.
The Results Are Totally Worth It
I started this post by telling you about Promoth. From listening to his mother I already got a clue he had a fixed mindset and believed he simply wasn’t born smart.
When working with him, I could tell the moment he’d give up because his eyes would wander away from the page or my face. When this happened I would gently bring him back.
If he attempted an exercise and failed I would praise him for the effort he put in.
I told him stories about other kids who were initially failing in school, but who began working really hard and afterwards started doing well.
The results began to show bit by bit.
He went from not being able to do any of the homework I gave him, to getting some of them right, then to being able to do them all on his own.
He went from being bottom of his class to being 3rd out of 30 in Math. And this happened over the space of roughly 5 months.
Promoth’s story might sound pretty amazing but in fact such transformations are pretty commonplace and we see them all the time at our school. When kids realize their identities are not fixed and get the right support, they literally begin to transform right before your eyes.
Great Support + A Growth Mindset + Great Study Habits = Academic Excellence
If you help your kids build the right mindset and the right study habits, academic excellence will naturally follow.
Do These 3 Things To Improve Your Child’s Performance
If you’d like to put this into practice, here are three things you can begin to do immediately:
- Stop telling your kids they are super smart, commend them for their efforts instead. And when they fail, ask them how much work they actually put into it.
- Get them to do their own research about learning, building focus and improving memory. There are loads of useful resources online that will help them. Ask them to share their findings with you.
- Help them create and stick to a daily study habit in an environment as free from distractions as possible.
Trust me, you’ll be astounded by the results.
Ayo is a Regional Admissions Director with EF Academy, a boarding school with campuses in the US and UK that offers the IGCSE, A-Levels & IB Diploma programs. He’s passionate about innovative learning strategies and how these can help students succeed at school and in life.