Saturday, July 14, 2012

Luck, Smarts and Effort ... Learned Helplessness vs. Learning How to Become 'Smart'

I strongly believe that sustained and focused effort is the key to knowledge---aka being recognized as 'smart.'

If we know we don't yet know but are willing to make the continuing effort to become more knowledgeable about whatever it is under study, we'll eventually become 'smart.'

It's like the "natural" athlete who busts his hump for twenty years becoming "natural." Stick-to-itiveness or something like that.

In any event, Flummoxed by Failure---or Focused? is subtitled 'It's not about being smart. The key to getting past unsuccessful moments is a flexible view of learning.'

Its contents are very much worth sharing with parents, students, teachers and other interested fellow Americans.

Here's what the article says about developing 'natural smartness' and how it's tightly linked to sustained effort and a can-do attitude:

"Many people think of intelligence as static: you are born with lots of brains, very few, or somewhere in between, and that quantum of intelligence largely determines how well you do in school and in life.

Where do helpless students get the notion that intelligence is fixed? In part from our culture, which bombards them with the idea that IQ tests measure how bright they are.

The astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has never liked this view. "I hardly ever use the word intelligence," says Mr. Tyson, who directs the Hayden Planetarium in New York. "I think of people as either wanting to learn, ambivalent about learning or rejecting learning." . . .

Over the past 25 years, social scientists have produced some key insights into how successful people overcome their unsuccessful moments—and they have found that attitudes toward learning play a large role from a young age.

In a 1978 study, the Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck and a colleague gave a series of puzzles to children, all of them about 10 years old. The first eight problems required some careful thought, but none was too demanding. The next four, however, were far too hard for anyone that age to solve in the allotted time. On the first eight, all of the youngsters solved the exercises and appeared to enjoy them. But everything changed with the impossible second set.

Reactions differed enormously. One group of students said things like, "I can't solve these problems. I'm not smart enough." They wilted in the face of failure. Children in the other group took a different approach: They kept telling themselves that they could solve the difficult problems with more effort.

Dr. Dweck and other psychologists have assigned labels to these two types of students. Students of the first sort are called "helpless" because they develop the idea that they just can't do something. If they continue to believe that they are generally smart, they still often become helpless because they are afraid to try anything new for fear that failure will undermine their self-image as "one of the bright ones."

Kids of the second sort, however, are said to have a mind-set of "mastery" or "growth." They believe that they can expand their abilities if they try. If they don't succeed, they look for new strategies rather than giving up.

Are these students just smarter than their "helpless" peers? Not according to Dr. Dweck. She has found that children in the two groups have roughly the same natural abilities. In fact, sometimes the "helpless" ones demonstrate greater native powers.

Where do helpless students get the notion that intelligence is fixed? In part from our culture, which bombards them with the idea that IQ tests measure how bright they are. Even well-meaning parents and teachers can foster this view. Melissa Kamins, who worked with Dr. Dweck, discovered that children who primarily receive personal praise ("how smart you are") rather than kudos for their efforts are more likely to develop fixed views of intelligence.

A growth mind-set can be learned. In a 2007 study by psychologists from Columbia and Stanford, nearly 100 seventh graders (most of them struggling in math) participated in an eight-week workshop on studying. The subjects were secretly divided into two large groups. Both groups received instruction on how to use their study time most effectively and how to organize and remember new material.

But then came the difference: One of the groups read aloud an article titled "You Can Grow Your Intelligence." It explained research on how nerve cells in the brain make stronger connections after we learn something new. Students in the other group spent that time reading an article about how memory works and learning new strategies for recalling material.

Most of the students went into the sessions generally believing that intelligence was fixed for life, but the group that read about the brain's growth emerged from the experience with much stronger notions about improving intelligence with effort. That group generally showed greater motivation to do well in math class in the weeks and months after the experience.

As the researchers noted, someone's theory about intelligence may not make much difference when times are easy. But when failures accumulate, those who believe that they can improve their basic abilities are far more likely to weather the storm. "

My Take

There's no substitute for hard work, self discipline and a positive attitude.

Thomas Edison put it this way, "The three great essentials to achieve anything worthwhile are, first, hard work; second, stick-to-itiveness; third, common sense."

Of course, common sense doesn't appear to be all that common these days.

And while it's true that most of us begin as 'C' students, it's equally true that some students then go on to earn 'As' while others get 'Fs.' Meanwhile, most are satisfied with just fitting in and getting 'Cs'. I guess that's what normal or mediocre means---'earning' a C grade.

In any event, wouldn't it be great if everybody realized that brains aren't the ultimate differentiator and that the real keys to success, however we may choose to define it, lie within the reach of each of us?

And that in the end, it's really up to us what course of action, or inaction, as the case may be, we choose when confronted with an "impossible" problem to solve.

In Viktor Frankl's 1946 book "Man's Search for Meaning," he argues that the ultimate human freedom is that we each have the power to decide how we will CHOOSE TO REACT to what happens to us, even though we often won't be able to control what initially happens.

The concentration camp survivor and psychiatrist said this about man's ultimate human freedom, "Everything can be taken from a man but ... the last of the human freedom's -- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."

So if you agree about the causal connection between effort and 'smarts,' and I sincerely hope that you do, please pass the word on to the kids that you know --- that in the end "smartness" equates to sustained effort and an unwavering belief in the rewards of a lifetime of learning.

As 1986 NBA dunk champion and "little man" 5' 7" tall Spud Webb so poignantly put it over two decades ago, "If you can dream it, you can do it."

Pass the word.

Thanks. Bob.

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