Teaching Resilience

Author // Cathy
Posted in // Cathy's Blog

Many students and adults alike believe intelligence is fixed. You are born with a certain amount of intellect and that’s it; you are brilliant or not so brilliant and there is little you can do about it.  Fortunately, current research demonstrates how neurologically elastic our brains really are; the brain does change with learning and experience throughout our lives.


Even more intriguing, what we believe about our brains can determine how fully we realize our potential. What students believe about their intelligence has profound effects on their achievement in school and their motivation to study and push themselves to be their best. Carol Dweck’s research, summarized in her book Mindset: How we can Learn to Fulfill our Potential, clearly demonstrates that what students believe about their brains – whether they see their intelligence as fixed or as something that can be nurtured and grow – has dramatic implications for how well they perform in school.


Students who believe their intelligence is fixed often stop working when school becomes challenging, thinking they may not be up to the task. Mistakes and poor grades for students with a “fixed mindset” are often demoralizing as such setbacks reinforce their view that their fixed level of intelligence is inadequate. They often malign their own abilities, saying “I can’t do ___,”or blame the teacher for their poor grade. Students with a fixed mindset think that if you have to work hard for something it means you don’t have the innate ability they presume other “smarter” kids have. Dr. Dweck points out the bind these students find themselves in, as not working hard in school assures further failure. “Those with more fixed mindsets were more likely to feel dumb, study less and [for some] seriously consider cheating.” If you think you are not up to the task, not trying is a way to try to protect yourself, to protect your ego.


In contrast, students who believe that intelligence is something that can be cultivated through focused hard work, who possess a “growth mindset,” more willingly confront challenges in school, profit from their mistakes and embrace learning. “Those with a growth mindset had a very straightforward idea of effort – the idea that the harder you work, the more your ability will grow and that even geniuses had to work hard for their accomplishments.” In short, students with a growth mindset embraced study habits that supported them, worked hard and viewed their teachers as allies regardless of whether or not they felt they were good at a given subject and regardless of their grades.


How do students acquire these mindsets, and what can parents and teachers do to help their student’s view of themselves? Dr. Dweck’s research focused on the damaging effect misplaced praise (in an effort to bolster student’s self esteem) has had in recent decades.  In one study, when students were praised in one group for their intelligence (“wow, what a high score – you must be really smart at this”) versus praised for effort (wow, that’s a really good score. You must have worked really hard.”), the results were dramatically different.


The students praised for their intelligence lost their confidence as soon as the logic problems presented to them became more difficult, and their performance declined.  However, those praised for their effort maintained their confidence and motivation even as the problems they encountered became more challenging.  Moreover, they not only enjoyed struggling with the harder problems, they used them to sharpen their skills so that their performance improved on the easier ones. “The children praised for their intelligence did not want to learn, they wanted to avoid making mistakes. When offered a more challenging task they could learn from, they opted for an easier one, one in which they could avoid making a mistake. The children praised for their effort wanted the task they could learn from.” The students with the fixed mindset didn’t want to risk losing the high regard of their instructors.  In the fixed mindset, imperfections are shameful – especially if you are talented – so they avoided the risk of failing.


This research and book raises some interesting questions, both professionally and personally. Mindsets are just beliefs, and, as such, can change over time.  It is so tempting to reassure a student who has experienced failure with “don’t worry, you are smarter than the grade you just got,” but by doing so we are inadvertently feeding the fixed mindset.  Focusing instead on process is the way to nurture a growth mindset .  Highlighting perseverance, strategies and effort, especially in the face of a poor grade or lackluster effort, provides room for discussion and for growth, and it does so without shaming the student.  It supports the sense of learning as a journey, and of making mistakes as a natural part of the process.  A student who feels safe taking risks, who feels he or she can recover and learn from mistakes, will realize that the brain can develop like a muscle, and will be well on the way to becoming a more confident and engaged learner.