How a theory of intelligence can improve the way your child  learns

© 2008-2015 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

What is your theory of intelligence? In East Asian countries, people often take the view that intelligence can be enhanced through effort. In the West, another, more deterministic view is popular: We are born with abilities that remain fixed throughout our lives.

The deterministic view sounds more depressing, and as we'll see, believing it has important consequences for how you learn. But is it also wrong-headed?

I think it is. While it's undeniable that hereditary and prenatal factors influence our cognitive performance, that's far from the whole story.

Consider what research suggests about cognitive performance.

  • Rationality is crucial for truly intelligent decision making, yet even high IQ individuals fall prey to common logical fallacies. Formal training in the tools of critical thinking -- like logic, the scientific method, and statistics -- can transform our ability to solve problems.
  • We might not be able to expand our working memory capacity, but we can learn effective hacks for improving working memory performance
  • Regular, aerobic exercise may stimulate the growth of brain cells and enhance executive function, the master self-regulator that helps us pay attention, plan, and resist distractions
  • Smart scheduling decisions can make it easier to learn. For example, we can increase our ability to retain new information by scheduling study sessions shortly before we sleep (Gais et al 2006; Wagner et al 2004; Kurdziel et al 2013).
  • We can improve recall by learning mnemonic strategies.
  • Exploration -- beginning in infancy -- contributes to long-term academic achievement. Experiments on rats suggest that exploratory behavior boosts brain growth and memory (Huber et al 2007; Dong et al 2012), and recent research hints that exploration influences the cognitive performance of children, too. In one study, babies who explored more actively at 5 months achieved higher academic levels at 14 years, even after controlling for maternal intelligence, education, and other aspects of the home environment (Bornstein et al 2013).

And there is the most obvious point: People develop impressive levels of expertise through practice.

Some may start with advantages that make learning easier. Others face obstacles that require more work to overcome. But with motivation, perseverance, and support, people can develop new skills.

So there is good reason to think that we can expand our abilities. What are the practical consequences of embracing this theory of intelligence?

People who believe that intelligence is malleable are better learners

Cognitive neuroscientist Jennifer Mangels and her colleagues tested Columbia undergraduates who subscribed to one of two beliefs about intelligence (Mangels et al 2006).

Undergraduates who held the “entity" theory of intelligence said they agreed strongly with statements like “you have a certain amount of intelligence and you can’t do much to change it."

Undergraduates who held the “incremental" theory of intelligence viewed intelligence as more malleable.

For the experiment, each student sat at a computer and was quizzed on a variety of academic subjects, ranging from history to science. Students were also asked to rate how confident they were about their answers.

After answering each question, students were told if their answer was right or wrong. They were also told what the correct answer was.

Then, once they’d answered all the questions, the students were tested again. But this time students were tested only on those questions which they had gotten wrong previously.

Throughout the experiment, researchers measured the students’ brain activity by recording event-related potentials (ERPs)—the electrical activity that accompanies our thoughts and perceptions.

The results were eye-opening.

Both groups did equally well on the first test session, and both groups were equally confident about their answers.

But students holding the more flexible, “growth" theory of intelligence responded differently to errors.

When “growth" students answered incorrectly and were told the right answer, they seemed to pay more attention. Their brains were more likely to show evidence of sustained, “deep" processing.

Moreover, the “growth" students were more likely to come up with the correct answers the second time around.

In other words, the students who believed that intelligence is malleable actually learned better than students who believed that intelligence is fixed and unchangeable.

These results have been replicated by another team of researchers working more recently (Moser et al 2011). People embracing an incremental, or growth-minded, theory of intelligence were better at monitoring and rectifying their mistakes.

What's going on? How do beliefs mindsets affect the way people learn? Very likely, the answer concerns failure. To people who believe in the malleability of intelligence, it's no big deal. They know they can improve their abilities with practice, and errors are part of the learning process. So they are eager to tackle challenges, and more likely to profit from their mistakes.

But if you believe that intelligence is fixed, failure poses a major threat. It's a sign that you lack ability, and aren't going to improve. Public failure is particularly devastating, so you avoid challenges. And when you make a mistake, you're more likely to feel helpless. There seems little point in trying to understand where you went wrong. You don't have what it takes.

And what about kids?

Children aren’t born believing that intelligence is fixed and unchangeable.

In the United States, children tend to endorse views common in East Asia: They believe in the malleability of intelligence until they are midway through grade school (Kinlaw and Kurtz-Costes 2007; Nicholls and Miller 1984).

But whereas East Asians continue to embrace a growth mindset throughout their lives, Americans tend to change. They become more invested in the "entity" view of intelligence (Heine et al 2001; Chen and Stevenson 1995; Stevenson and Lee 1990).

One contributing factor could be the style of praise that some American children receive. You might think that it's helpful to praise a child for being smart. But in a series of experiments, Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck (2002) showed how this can backfire.

Kids who received such praise became more concerned about protecting their image than learning. They seemed to conclude that failure is a sign of low intelligence, so they played it safe and avoided difficult tasks that might have made them look incompetent. When they did fail, they tended to give up.

By contrast, kids praised for their effort became more eager to tackle challenges, and more resilient in the wake of failure.

It's a pattern that's also been observed outside the lab. Over the long term, tweens who are regularly praised for their intelligence ("You're so smart!") become ever-more likely to endorse the entity theory, and ever-more reluctant to tackle challenges (Pomerantz and Kempner 2013).

And even young children are vulnerable (Erdley et al 1997; Smiley and Dweck 1994). When Patricia Smiley and Carol Dweck presented 4- and 5-year-olds with several puzzles, the researchers noticed a pattern in children's preferences: The kids who were most susceptible to feelings of helplessness were more likely to prefer puzzles that were too easy for them (Smiley and Dweck 1994).

Change your mindset, improve performance

We've seen that people who believe in the malleability of intelligence have a learning advantage. But does this mean we can improve a student's ability to learn by teaching him or her to embrace a growth theory of intelligence?

Researchers behind the study of 7th graders and math achievement put this question to the test (Blackwell et al 2007). They enrolled students in one of two instructional programs. One program taught kids study skills. The other program combined study tips with information about the brain. The brain-based program encouraged kids to think of the brain as a muscle that becomes stronger with use.

The results? Kids enrolled in the brain-based program improved their math grades. Kids enrolled in the study skills program did not (Blackwell et al 2007).

Studies of young adults have reported similar findings. When college undergraduates were encouraged to believe in the power of practice, they showed immediate improvements in their attitude towards failure (Niiya et al 2004), and performed better on puzzle-solving tasks (Thompson and Muskat 2005). Merely reading about the growth mindset -- a few brief sentences -- was enough to change the way students tackled a high-speed, attention task. Compared to students who read an endorsement of the "entity" theory, students exposed to the "growth" mindset showed more focus and learned more from their mistakes (Schroder et al 2014).

What can parents do?

As noted above, there is real scientific evidence that we can sharpen are own our thinking. Read more about it in James Flynn's What Is Intelligence?: Beyond the Flynn Effect and Richard Nisbett's book, Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count.

Based on the research I’ve seen, parents can probably do a lot to help their kids acquire the right mindset for learning. Here are some suggestions.

1. Get on board yourself

Are you convinced that skills should develop easily, or else they weren't meant to be? If so, you’ll probably pass this belief along to your child. 

2. Teach your child the good news

Tell kids about the importance of exercising their minds, and the encourage them to view mistakes as opportunities to learn (Dweck 2006). Provide kids with specific, concrete examples of how novices become competent over time. 

3. Be careful with praise

Praise can be a great motivator for academic achievement. However, the wrong kinds of praise can backfire. As noted above, praising kids for their smarts may actually encourage kids to adopt the entity theory of intelligence.

On the other hand, praising kids for effort may encourage them to develop an incremental theory of intelligence. In a recent study tracking children from the age of 1 year, kids who received more praise for effort during the toddler years were more likely to endorse the incremental theory when they were in the 2nd and 3rd grades. They were also more likely to agree that persistence and hard work pays off (Gunderson et al 2013).

For more information about the effects of praise, see these articles on praise and intelligence and tips for effective praise.

In addition, check out Carol Dweck's best-selling book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success .


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For more information about the ways that our theory of intelligence can influence our intellectual performance, see this article about stereotype threat.

Image of girl in pond: Steve Hildebrand / US Fish and Wildlife

Image of kids painting: heyjude/photomorgue

Content of "How a theory of intelligence can improve the way your child  learns" last modified 6/15