The role of effort in improving learning, for both students and their teachers


Dennis Sparks
In response to a post on breakthrough thinking, reader Cathy Abler wrote:

I have consciously evaluated my thinking lately in regards to the fixed and growth mindset research. I find that when I force myself into what I would call an enhanced growth mindset (something that I would not typically think of doing), those are the times most likely to foster breakthrough thinking.

I responded: Perhaps the whole world can be divided into two groups – those who think our potential is fixed at birth or at least in our earliest years and those who believe that through effort and persistence we can learn and grow throughout our lifespans. It would be wonderful to have schools staffed by educators in the latter group. Fortunately, for those educators who don’t currently have a growth mindset, we believe that it can be cultivated.

A bit of context regarding “fixed” vs. “growth” mindsets: In the West we are more like to  believe that academic success is a result of fixed intelligence. As a result, we value “smart students.”

A NPR story on how Western and Eastern cultures view learning included this explanation by UCLA Professor Jim Stigler:  “’In Eastern cultures,’ Stigler says, ‘it’s just assumed that struggle is a predictable part of the learning process. Everyone is expected to struggle in the process of learning, and so struggling becomes a chance to show that you, the student, have what it takes emotionally to resolve the problem by persisting through that struggle.”

Just as students can learn more effectively by applying effort, so too can their teachers learn to be more effective through hard work and dedication.

But if school leaders believe that teachers are born, not made, they are not likely to support the kinds of rigorous professional learning that’s necessary for all teachers to continuously develop their skills throughout their careers.

Principals and teacher leaders can:

1. Honestly examine their own beliefs about the role of effort in learning. Do you believe that student effort matters and that teachers can improve their skillfulness over time through hard work?

2. Engage with other leaders and staff members in a study of the work of Carol Dweck and others. What are the implications of this research for your school community and on your own unique role in it?

Please comment: What are the implications of the research in the area of fixed vs. growth mindsets for you in your unique role? How have you or could you engage your school community in considering its implications for the learning of both students and adults?

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1 Response to “The role of effort in improving learning, for both students and their teachers”


  1. 1 G. Michael Abbott January 21, 2013 at 9:31 am

    This is so important. Simple comments affect young people’s view of themselves. “You are SO smart” suggests that our minds are fixed. Our cultural bias is so engrained that we pass it on impulsively to our children and students. I’m now telling my grands, “You really worked hard to figure that out,” or words to that effect. But, in our culture, it’s easy to have relapses. I hear people boast that their child is so smart that he doesn’t have to study. That tells children who don’t do well immediately that they are just, well, stupid, and that trying is useless. Teachers impose this view when they pose a question to a class and take the first answer thrown out by a student. They are denying other students a chance to ponder the question. This reinforces the “smart” vs “growth” cultural bias of the US. There is something to be said for contemplation and for struggle.

    As a dropout entering college by luck and happenstance, I was encouraged by reading that most college graduates are not the smartest. Graduates were overwhelmingly the ones who did their homework and studied diligently.

    This is a profound insight that can vastly improve learning.

    Mike


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