Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Hard Work versus Intelligence

I am currently reading Jonah Lehrer's fascinating book "How We Decide". If the rest of the book lives up to the three chapters I have read so far, I will recommend it enthusiastically.

In chapter 2, there is an intriguing discussion of the role of mistakes in the learning process, that are potentially relevant in an academic setting (apparently, Neils Bohr once remarked that an expert was a person who had committed all the mistakes possible in a narrow field).

The whole idea is that mistakes aren't things to be discouraged, but rather they should be "cultivated, and carefully investigated". Lehrer talks about a series of experiments performed by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck on the correlation between future performance and quality of praise.

A bunch of fifth-graders  students were given a relatively easy test. Half the kids were praised for their intelligence ("you must be smart at this"). The other half were praised for their effort ("you must have worked really hard").

These kids were allowed to choose the level of difficulty of their next exam. The first choice was described as hard, but educational, while the other was described as being similar to the one they had just taken.  

90% of the kids praised for effort chose the harder test, while a majority of the kids praised for intelligence picked the easy test. They shunned the risk of making mistakes. This aversion can seriously inhibit learning.

Dweck then gave all the kids yet another test. This one was really really hard. In fact, it was written for eighth-graders. Dweck wanted to see how kids respond to the challenge. The "effort" kids got very involved, and tried to tease the test apart, while the "intelligent" group got easily discouraged.

After the test she asked the two groups of students to make a further choice. They could look at the exams of kids who did better than them, or worse than them. The "intelligence" kids almost always chose to bolster their self-esteem by comparing themselves with someone who had done worse. The other cohort were more interested in the higher-scoring exams - "trying to understand their mistakes, to learn from their errors , to figure out how to do better."

She was not done yet.

She gave one final "exit" exam, which was supposed to be similar to the initial test. The "intelligent" group saw their scores drop by 20% on average, while the other group improved by 30%.

As a teacher and parent, this is really important practical stuff. In fact here (pdf) is a relatively recent article on how to raise smart kids by Dweck.


Sumeet Pai said...


You might like reading this too:


Sachin Shanbhag said...

Thanks for the link, Sumya. While the French surely seem to know a few things about parenting, the thing I have found is that everyone magnifies the positives of "other" cultures.

For example, American parents are amazed to learn that most Indian kids are potty trained by a year and half, and that they don't have as many "teenage" problems. On the other hand, Indian parents are amazed by how self-reliant many American kids are.

Its all good!