Sunday, February 14, 2010

Why am I smart


There is a strong line of research that shows us that how people perceive their intelligence or success may be more important than whether they are intelligent or successful.
Let’s pretend little Sally did a ‘good job’. How might Sally explain her success? Here are a number of reasonable responses Little Sally might give:

•‘I worked my tail off for that project.’
•‘I’m just a natural at this stuff.’
•‘I guessed on like half the questions.’
•‘It was really easy.’

Let’s categorize these responses:

•Which are internal factors and which are external?
•Which are stable and which change over time?
•Which are in Sally’s control?


Attempting to identify how little Sally attributes her success or failure in this manner was developed by Bernard Weiner and it has proven to have some striking implications. Take a look at Sally’s responses again. Which response would you rather her attribute her success to? Sally might attribute her success to factors that are external (luck and difficulty), factors that are stable (ability and difficulty) or factors that are out of her control (luck, difficulty and ability). Most parents and teachers that I know would want Sally to attribute her success to effort because it provides a lot of optimism for future growth. The problem arises when we praise kids in a way that encourages them to focus on how well they are doing.

Alfie Kohn points out “When kids are led to focus on how well they are performing in school, they tend to explain their performance not by how hard they tried but by how smart they are.” This means kids are very likely to attribute their successes and failures to factors such as luck, difficulty and ability before effort. That is to say, they are likely to attribute their successes and failures to factors that are external, strictly stable and out of their control. Carol Dweck would describe anyone who attributes their successes and failures in this way as suffering from a fixed mindset.

There is a big difference between focusing on showing how good you are and focusing on showing how bad you’re not. And it might be worth reflecting on how much time we should even spend focusing on showing how good we are, when we could be spending our time learning and improving.

1 comment:

  1. Thought provoking post! I think a big factor in determining success or failure completing a task is belief in oneself. Most days, I write the following on the board in the classroom where I'm subbing - If you think you can't, you're right. Then I suggest they read about the little engine that could.

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