One of the most disheartening phenomena in talking to people about learning is the pervasiveness of responses like “I’m not good at math”, “My kids could never do that”, etc. I think that these responses have a common origin; one that is embedded in most of us in one form or another, and is rooted in our formative years. The phenomenon is related to two well-documented psychological states. The first is known as learned helplessness and was first described by Martin Seligman in the late 1960s. It has been demonstrated across many studies and is present in other species. The second is a fixed-intelligence mindset, as described by the research of Carol Dweck. The two are closely related.
Learned helplessness is a sense of lack of control over circumstances that persists even when control is present. In the original study this was demonstrated in dogs who received shocks. I should note here that I do not in any way condone the way these experiments were performed, but they were performed and we may as well benefit from them. Anyway, the dogs were divided into three groups. The first group were placed into harnesses for a time and then released, with no shock. The second group were administered a shock that they could end by pressing a lever. The third group were tethered to the second group so that they had no control over the shock and it ended when the second group dog pressed the lever. The dogs in the first two groups were largely unaffected by the experiment, but the dogs in the third group developed a sense of learned helplessness. They showed most of the signs of depression. The helplessness was displayed in a second experiment when all three groups of dogs were placed in a box where a shock was administered. In this experiment, all three groups could easily escape by jumping over a low barrier. Almost all the dogs in the first two groups immediately discovered this. The majority of the dogs in the third group, however, would merely lie down and whine. They felt completely helpless, even though there was an obvious way to escape.
I relay this sad experiment, because it mirrors in some sense the experience that many people have in education. Taking math as an example, many people fall behind early on. Maybe because of poor teaching methods, lack of maturity in the early grades, or just taking longer than average to “get it”, at some point many people miss something. Because mathematics is taught as a ladder, once you miss a rung it is hard going. Math becomes a continual struggle and even by working hard it is difficult to make progress. All of the math experience in Junior High or High School is painful and frustrating, because of missed opportunities in previous grades. So, the conditioning is instilled that the student is not good at math, and is helpless to change things.
As an adult, pretty much anyone without a severe disability is perfectly capable of understanding and even enjoying mathematics at a fairly high level, but it requires a certain amount of work and finding the right learning environment. Sadly, almost no adults go back to appreciate the field. They are conditioned that they aren’t good at math, and feel helpless to approach it. They are like the dogs with a clear path to escape that instead lie down and whine about how they aren’t good at math.
I think one of our main goals as parents should be to avoid teaching our children to be helpless. There are some pretty well developed techniques to prevent this, much of it centered around explanatory style. For a detailed overview of how to improve explanatory style, Seligman’s book, Learned Optimism is a good starting place. He has chapters specifically on parenting techniques.
In a nutshell, the problem revolves around the internal dialog that happens when problems occur.
More directly relevant to the educational problem though, are Carol Dweck’s theories on mindset. Her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, is the best source for this work. The key question is whether the student considers intelligence intrinsic to themselves (fixed mindset) or incrementally attainable (growth mindset). In other words, do they perform well because they are “smart”, or because they’ve worked hard. It has been well demonstrated that students who believe their performance to be based on an unchanging intelligence are much more fragile in the face of failure than those who believe they can improve with effort.
From Mindset, the fixed mindset is described:
Believing that your qualities are carved in stone – the fixed mindset – creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you only have a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character – well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them.
Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser?
The growth mindset:
The growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way – in their initial talents, aptitudes, interests, or temperaments – everyone can change and grow through application and experience.
Parents think they can hand children permanent confidence – like a gift – by praising their brains and talent. It doesn’t work and in fact has the opposite effect. It makes children doubt themselves as soon as anything is hard or anything goes wrong. If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning. That way, their children don’t have to be slaves of praise. They will have a lifelong way to build and repair their own confidence.
Dweck has experimentally demonstrated that praising children’s intelligence causes them to perform worse and to refuse to exert effort. Praising their hard work leads to children who enjoy a challenge. This also holds in the face of failure. We should encourage exerting more effort, rather than judging character when a child fails.
You can read more about Dweck’s research here: Mindset Works.
Resilience in the face of failure is critical in preventing feelings of helplessness. In order to excel, a student must be continually challenged and fail a lot. Without an appropriate mindset, this just isn’t possible. This is not to say that students should just be rewarded for effort, with no value placed on achievement. Achievement is and should be rewarding. The difference is in how failure is handled. You want children to go into challenging situations with an attitude that they can improve if they work harder. Otherwise, each situation is viewed as a judgment on their innate ability, and failure is devastating.
These two lines of research overlap and compliment each other, and I highly recommend both books to parents, and to adults who suffer self-esteem issues. They have definitely challenged the way that we approach talking about success and failure to our children, and have caused us to reevaluate the way we talk to ourselves about our own lives. Again in the theme of correcting your own flaws first, parents need to make sure they have a healthy approach to their own development, success, and failure if they want to pass that on to their children.