How to Build Your Kid’s Intelligence (and Your Own)

In a previous blog, I posted a quote from Richard Nisbett, distinguished psychology professor at Michigan and Malcolm Gladwell’s guru on human intelligence, who indicated that intelligence is under our control.  So how do you get our intelligence under control?  Although there are a lot of answers to that question, including basics like nutrition and exercise, the best response is tied to the research of Carol Dweck, the world renown expert on human motivation.  I have written previously about her work here, here and here.  Dweck’s early research focused on why some school children persist in the face of failure while others quit as soon as the going gets rough.  Over the years her research has shown that it is crucial for parents to teach children that their intelligence is under their control. Indeed, she found that when children are praised for their intelligence, they resist accepting a challenge and doing things from which they can learn a lot.Here is Richard Nisbett’s summary of that fascinating research:In a clever experiment . . .developmental psychologists Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck told children that they had done very well on problems from the Raven Progressive Matrices test and praised them either for being bright or for working hard.  They then offered the children the opportunity to work on another set of problems—either easy ones (“so I’ll do well”) or hard problems that would challenge them (“so I’ll learn a lot from them, even if I won’t look so smart”).  Sixty-six percent of the children who were praised for their intelligence chose to work on easy problems that would show that they were smart; over 90percent of children praised for hard work chose problems that they would learn a lot from.  If the children did well because they worked hard, they wanted problems that would test their limits and teach them how to do even better.But in order to further test their conclusions, the researchers added some important “difficulties.”Before the children actually got a chance to work on a problem set of their choice, Mueller and Dweck required them to work on a second set of problems that were much more difficult than the first set.  The children were then asked to explain why they had performed poorly on the second set of problems.  The children praised for intelligence based on performance on the first set of problems were more likely to think that their failure on the second set of problems reflected lack of ability; children praised for hard work initially were more likely to think that their failure on the second set of problems was due to lack of effort.  Children praised for ability were less likely to want to continue to work on the problems and reported enjoying working on the second set of tasks less than did those praised for hard work.  As icing on the cake, Mueller and Dweck then had the children work on a third set of problems.  Children who had initially been praised for intelligence solved fewer problems than those initially praised for hard work.  The conclusions are obvious:  If you want to build your kid’s intelligence (and your own), emphasize and praise for effort and hard work, not for intelligence or IQ.  Not only does that process reject the conventional and highly limiting views of innate intelligence, but more significantly, it puts performance under the control of the person.  You may not think you’ve got the ability, but you sure as hell can put more effort into something you want to learn.  And, that’s especially true when you’ve got an effective teacher and coach.Later studies by Carol Dweck and Anders Ericsson on “deliberate practice” research successes in numerous fields based on the results of this seminal research.  That includes research on sports such as golf, ice-skating, and tennis, as well as games like chess, and academic subjects like math, business, the arts and an ever-enlarging set of disciplines.
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