09 February 2011

Are we teaching "learned helplessness"?

    In the article “Secret to Raising Smart Kids”, as posted in Scientific American Mind (November 28, 2007), writer Carol S. Dweck states that children who seem gifted in school at a young age and are constantly praised for that gifted intelligence “hold the implicit belief that intelligence is innate and fixed, making striving to learn seem far less important than being (or looking) smart.  This belief also makes them see challenges, mistakes and even the need to exert effort as threats to their ego rather than as opportunities to improve. And it causes them to lose confidence and motivation when the work is no longer easy for them.”  In doing so, they develop a “learned helplessness” when the challenges become greater in middle school and beyond because their skill level remains the same while the challenges become greater.  Because their intelligence fails them as the schoolwork becomes harder, they believe they have failed and have become rather unintelligent.  In fact, to these children challenges are to be avoided because challenges lead to having to put forth effort, which in turn leads to mistakes and failure and failures mean that they are dumb.

    However, children who are not constantly praised and see school as something they need to work at no matter what their intelligence may be seem to do well, as they see each challenge as a way to grow and do better.  Even when they make mistakes, they learn from their mistakes, not see them as a failure. They hone their skills and keep trying, even when the challenges become larger.

    The idea  is that kids that are not constantly being told they are naturally intelligent, those that must work harder to get the grade and focus on the effort rather then the end result seem to be happier.  They are able to be more creative because thy must use their creativity to do well.  They don't rely on innate  or “natural” intelligence because they have learned that people are not truly born with such talents, but rather those talents are developed over a lifetime.

    As a leading research psychologist and professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would say, those kids are learning to become one with “flow” or the creative moment when a person is completely in tune with an activity for the sake of doing the activity.  Because they have developed their mindsets to see problems as challenges to better themselves, kids who are creative become focused and gain inner clarity.  They hon their seemingly natural talents and learn new ones as they are suited for whatever challenge lies ahead of them.  They develop a sense of joy for what they are doing, and are motivated not by outside forces but intrinsically.  Because they have learned to apply their imaginations to help them, they gain problem-solving skills and at whatever their skills become. 

    So one may ask himself or herself, what does this mean for teachers?

    We need to stop praising students for how smart they are, and instead praise them for how much effort they put towards working on gaining skills.  We need to be teaching problem solving skills to all children, whether or not we think they need them.  We also need to stop assuming that a child may or may not have a certain amount of intelligence.  Intelligence is not a fixed or tangible thing.  It is ever changing, ever flowing and should be ever growing as well. By constantly praising the intelligence of the child, we aid in the teaching of helplessness, which ends up hindering a student for the rest of their life by teaching them that effort in any shape or form is tantamount to failure.  We also hold that child up as an example of success, which makes it harder for that student to really succeed when the work become harder.

    We as teachers need to tap into the imaginations of our students and use that to help them to become more creative.  As Ken Robinson states chapter three in his book, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, is the driving force of creativity and when applied become creativity itself.  We should not look down on children or adults who have their “head in the clouds” as being a little loony, but rather admire and praise them and learn from them.  The Luna Lovegoods of the world may not be in full step with normal society, but they are indeed attuned to the idea of being creative.

    As teachers, we also must get in touch with our own imaginations.  We should not be afraid to daydream and think up the most extraordinary things.  We need to remember what it is like to dream big and connect our big dreams to our students and to those around us.  We need to not be afraid to make mistakes and put forth the effort to do that.  By doing this, we can set the example of our students and peers.

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