School is a fascinating place. We attend school in order to grow and learn and receive an education, and yet many of us are judged and labelled, often in our first year, these labels sticking with us throughout our school experiences. While it is natural that those with innate talent or interest in an area should be encouraged, more often than not, school is a place where we go to find out what we “Can’t Do”. Whether explicit or not, these labels can stay with us for years, determining what we believe about ourselves, and what we try to achieve.
Unfortunately, there is a clear cultural message that most of us receive as well – that those who are smart can do things easily, and that they don’t need to try. This myth is perpetuated in every arena – sports, business, and in the classroom. Some students are “smart”, so they naturally know how to create computer programs or solve math problems or ace a history test. The ones who aren’t so fortunate, may work hard and get good grades occasionally, but that doesn’t make them smart, and it doesn’t mean that they can be relied on to do it consistently.
These kinds of ideas are also gender-specific – girls are often fed a very subtle message that they can’t handle math and science courses. Most of us aren’t told this very specifically by anyone, but it’s a subtle cultural memo that at some point is covertly downloaded into our psyche. There are many brilliant women working hard in the STEM fields worldwide; however, they face immense psychological, emotional and physical hurdles that mean far fewer women enter these fields than they should.
A famous research study was conducted by psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck. She tested some ideas on learning and beliefs on a group of students. Two groups of students (randomly chosen) were given a test on some fairly difficult problems. After the test, one group was praised for how smart they were, while the other was praised for how hard they had worked. Then the two groups were given another test, but this time they had a choice - they could choose a harder test from which they could learn, or an easy one similar to the one they had just taken. The group that was praised for being smart chose mostly to take a test similar to the previous one; while 90% of the group complimented on their effort, chose to take the more difficult test. Both groups were then given another test, which was quite difficult. The group praised for being smart disliked the task, while the ones who were praised for their hard work enjoyed both the struggle and the learning opportunity given by this task.
Dr. Dweck hypothesized that the difference in the groups was due to their different mindsets - by praising one group for being smart, they chose to hold on to their 'smart' status by not wanting to pick a harder test and possibly do badly. Dweck called this the "fixed mindset" group. The other group focused on effort, and chose to try even harder the next time - they were exhibiting the "growth mindset".
Dweck's research shows that your innate ability and talent matters much less than whether you believe that you can improve on it (growth mindset) or that you are stuck with what you have (fixed mindset). You may not be able to change your genes or how much talent you innately possess, but everyone can grow their abilities if they choose to put in the effort.
Maybe it doesn’t matter how smart you are or aren’t, but how much you are willing to learn. More than ever, the world is changing incredibly rapidly. Already many of the things I learnt in school are outdated. Most of us will change careers a few times in our lives, what we learn in school and college will become obsolete and we will need to upgrade our skills. We need to learn how to learn, how to adapt to our changing world. I firmly believe that those who will thrive are those who aren’t wedded to this idea of who is smart and who isn’t. Those who are willing to learn and try things will have the advantage.
This is an edited excerpt from my book "Anyone Can Get An A+: How To Beat Procrastination, Reduce Stress and Improve Your Grades". It makes the perfect back-to-school purchase or gift. Click here to buy this book from your preferred retailer: books2read.com/anyonecangetana