Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Become an incremental theorist

You've decided to learn something new.  Say you've taken up the banjo*, for example, and you've never played a musical instrument before.  In those first lessons, you find yourself struggling with the first halting notes of "Old Joe Clark" -- this is not as easy as you thought!  Do you say to yourself:  
A.  I have a lot to learn, but I'm getting better with every session.  If I keep trying, I'll be sure to get this eventually. 
B.  I'm not good at this -- I guess I'll never be a really good banjo player.  I'm just not musically inclined.
If you lean towards A, you are approaching banjo-playing as what psychologist Carol Dweck calls an incremental theorist.  That means that you think your abilities can improve over time and that you can achieve this task with sufficient practice and study.  If you tend more towards B, you would approach banjo-playing more as an entity theorist.  You see your musical ability as fixed and unchangeable; banjo-playing is something some people are naturally better at than others, and you are just trying to figure out whether you are one of those gifted musicians or not.   For most tasks, there is probably some truth in both approaches.  Some people have the capacity to achieve a higher skill level than others, but all of us can improve with practice and dedicated study.  Nevertheless, the particular emphasis you bring to the task can dramatically affect how you handle challenges and failures, ultimately affecting your overall performance in the task.

Suppose you have an entity theorist approach to mathematics, for example (as many people do in the U.S.).  In your early experiences in math class, you're looking for evidence of whether you are good at math or not so good at math.  If you don't do well in your first few tests, you'll probably decide you're not so good at math.  Having made that determination will then affect your level of engagement with math.  If I'm not good at this, I should direct my efforts elsewhere and just take the minimal math classes required.  Why should I spend extra hours studying?  I'll never be that good at math -- I'm just not a math person.  (Sound familiar?  I can't tell you how many of my students come in with similar narratives about math.)

On the other hand, if you have an incremental theorist approach to mathematics (as many do in Japan or China), you come into the class with the belief that anyone can learn math; mathematics is achievable with sufficient effort.  So early failures or challenges don't signal that you aren't good at math, but merely that you must put greater effort into studying and get additional help to learn the material.  I don't understand this well yet, but I know that I can learn this material.  I'll need to keep trying so that I can improve and develop my skills more fully.  Look how much I've already learned!

The incremental theorist approach encourages us to focus on improvement, rather than identifying those individuals who are gifted (or not so gifted).  Instead of responding to failure with disengagement, we respond with renewed effort.  Instead of being vigilant for cues of our lack of ability, we are focused on evidence of progress and growth.  The entity theorist fears failure (signifying, as it does, inherent lack of ability -- they've found me out at last!), and so, avoids risk.  Yet learning requires risk; we must be willing to try and fail in order to grow and improve. 

An incremental approach needn't blind us to differences in ease of learning or final ability.  Some will learn the material more easily and some less easily.  Some may rise to unusual levels of excellence in their performance (e.g., the difference between a competent or even skilled banjo player and one who is a banjo virtuoso).  But I cannot know my ultimate capacity if I quit trying at the first failure.  The child who gives up on math might well have become a gifted mathematician -- struggling with a subject does not necessarily preclude significant mastery later on.  But beyond that, achieving a basic level of mathematical competence is still a worthy achievement, and one that opens a number of career doors that will otherwise be closed.  I need not be mathematically exceptional to successfully master calculus, which then allows me access to a variety of career options in the sciences and social sciences, many of which do not, in themselves, require extensive use of mathematics for successful achievement.

If we are to inculcate an incremental theorist's mindset, it means we need to change the kind of praise we give.  Rather than telling our students they are smart when they get the right answer (an entity approach), we should emphasize their capacity for growth and new learning.  A recent Washington Post article discussed the process of fine-tuning praise in schools:
[Carol Dweck’s] studies, embraced in [schools in Montgomery County, MD] and elsewhere, have found that praising children for intelligence — “You’re so clever!” — also backfires. In study after study, children rewarded for being smart become more likely to shy away from hard assignments that might tarnish their star reputations.
But children praised for trying hard or taking risks tend to enjoy challenges and find greater success. Children also perform better in the long term when they believe that their intellect is not a birthright but something that grows and develops as they learn new things.  (Chandler, Jan. 15 2012)
After all, this is true -- learning new skills fosters new neural connections and increases our brain's complexity.  We are always capable of growth and improvement, and emphasizing this capability provides a mindset that gives us a sense of control and promotes greater success in the long run. 
Yet in another local story, the District of Columbia is looking to improve education in struggling schools by providing incentives for effective teachers to move to schools in which students are performing poorly.  Holding aside the obvious difficulties of measuring "effectiveness" in teachers, this constitutes an entity approach to the problem:  Let's find the good teachers and move them to the underperforming schools where they can promote student learning and success.  What if we were to take an incremental approach, and focus on how to help teachers improve in all of the school districts?  We could take the money that would have been poured into incentives for high-performing teachers, and use it provide resources and professional development for teachers in the challenged schools.  The excellent teachers throughout the system could well be among those resources, providing mentoring and support for other teachers to grow and develop their ability to promote student learning.  As Cosby Hunt (a former DCPS teacher) said in a recent Washington Post article
“The question is not how can we look to a few superstar teachers to serve as our fix-it crew, but rather, how do we raise the effectiveness of all our teachers?” (Turque, Jan. 23 2012)
Exactly.  After all, if an incremental approach works for our students, why wouldn't it work for teachers?  We need to stop looking for the gifted few and start promoting lifelong learning and development for everyone.  In other words, let's stop waiting for Superman** to swoop in and save the day.  We need to start working on our own improvement and growth instead.  Maybe we can't all be superhuman, but that doesn't mean we can't do well enough to get the job done . . . and with practice and help, we'll do even better tomorrow.
Get over the idea that only children should spend their time in study.  Be a student so long as you still have something to learn, and this will mean all your life.  ~Henry L. Doherty

 *A shout-out to my sister (different sister from the one mentioned in my previous post) who just started learning banjo.

**OK, this is an obvious reference to the documentary film, Waiting for Superman, which I just saw last weekend, but no particularly pointed commentary on the film is intended.  In some ways, the film is about looking for exceptional educators to save the day, but not in the same way as the proposed DC initiative.  I have very mixed feelings about the film, but that's a tale for a different post. 

Chandler, M. A. (Jan. 15, 2012).  In schools, self-esteem boosting is losing favor to rigor, finer-tuned praise. Washington Post.

Dweck, C. S. & Leggett, E. L. (1988).  A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality.  Psychological Review, 95, 256-273.

Madden, J.  (Jan. 24, 2012).  D.C. to lure top teachers to underperforming classrooms.  National Public Radio.

Stigler, J. W., & Perry, M.  (1990). Mathematics learning in Japanese, Chinese, and American classrooms.  In J. W. Stigler, R. A. Shweder, & G. Herdt (Eds).  Cultural psychology:  Essays on comparative human development (pp. 328-356). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Turque, B.  (Jan. 23, 2012).  Educators say it will take more than dollars to lure effective teachers to struggling D.C. schools.  D. C. Schools Insider, Washington Post.


  1. Such a simple difference in mindset -- and such an opportunity for improvement.
    I plan to share this -- thank you.

    1. Sometimes our mindset can make all the difference in how we approach a task. I'm glad you liked the post! Thanks for commenting.