Lets Switch our Focus to Learning Rather than Achievement

We’ve always been told that getting an ‘A’ in school is important.  Our parents will often give us wide smiles and perhaps some money or a nice dinner out.  Rarely does anyone ask, “What did you learn in that class?”  Is that praise for an ‘A’ helping us learn?  According to a psychology study, focusing on performance can result in road blocks for our young learners.

According to Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck, children focusing on their performance tend to avoid tasks if it might be hard and result in failure.  After performing a set of problems that they were told they scored high on, 5th graders were given choices indicating what kinds of problems they wanted to do next. These choices colored their attitudes towards learning.  The first three choices, “problems that aren’t too hard, so I don’t get many wrong,” “problems that are pretty easy, so I’ll do well,” and “problems that I’m pretty good at, so I can show that I’m smart,” are geared toward attitudes focused on demonstrating their abilities.  The last choice, “problems that I’ll learn a lot from, even if I won’t look so smart,” demonstrated that their main concern was for the development of their ability.  What determined their choice?

In the study, 5th graders were given three types of feedback after being told their score: “you must be smart at these problems,” “you must have worked hard on these problems” and the last group was only told their score, with no additional feedback (the control group).  Children who were told that they must have been smart chose attitudes geared toward demonstrating abilities, while those who were told that they exerted a lot of effort chose the attitude focused on their development.

Children with attitudes geared toward demonstrating their abilities, in turn, tended to want to avoid activities that have the prospect of failure, even when they know that they might gain a valuable learning experience.  To avoid being seen as incompetent now is more important than becoming competent later.  This can be so severe that children who strive to perform well will often freeze when faced with failure and perform worse then they would otherwise. To them, their ability seemed like a stable trait, something they could not change, and, therefore, things that test that ability are worth avoiding when faced with failure.

However, children that focused on their development tended to see failure as a step along a road towards learning.  They attributed their failure to not having put enough work into it yet and that if they worked hard enough, they would get it eventually.  To them, their ability was variable depending on how hard and much they worked on it, instead of stagnant.  They believed this so much that, when tested for their persistence and fun in the problem sets, they were eager to do more after failing a second and harder problem set, unlike their demonstrating-ability counterparts.

This study provides support for praise for effort only after a child has done well.  What do you say in times of failure?  I’ve heard many people say, “well, at least you tried your best.”  The problem I see with this is that the statement ends there.  It does not imply any continual effort.  It only indicates past effort but does not suggest that more is needed.  Perhaps a better way to say it is, “I’m sure if we spent some more time on it, you’ll get it!”  What do you think?

Mueller, Claudia & Dweck, Carol. “Praise for Intelligence Can Undermine Children’s Motivation and Performance.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1998, Vol. 75, No. 1, 33-52
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