Some comments on past articles warning against telling children that learning is easy and that rewards are "bad" led me to write this. At the core of this article is the question of how beliefs affect performance and how we can change beliefs.
It is at the same time obvious and subtle. In the heat of the teaching moment, some teachers and parents may forget to monitor and nurture the optimistic beliefs in children. In this post we'll cover some research from the aclaimed book "Mindset" as well as concepts from the fields of motivation, behaviourism, personality, and learning.
We start with a simple concept, rather an observation: Many people would like to fly, yet we see very few people galloping with flapping arms like clumsy albatross. Take a second to ponder why. Most of us could come up with the right answer, which is that people cannot fly by flapping their arms. It just can't happen, and we know it. Therefore we don't try. How simple.
Yet this simple bit of knowledge has profound consequences for children. It can mean the difference between stunted intellectual growth and a mind free of restraint.
Carolyn Dweck is one of the early and well-known child psychologists to research this phenomenon, although variants are very well known in other branches of psychology relating to motivation, especially in the workplace. She discovered that some children believe they have a fixed amount of intelligence while others believe that intelligence can grow with practice. Those with a "fixed mindset" as she calls it, will look for ways to exploit the intelligence they have but not to improve their intelligence. Those with a "growth mindset", on the other hand, have the possibility to invest effort in learning or trying new things.
The essential task is to keep the possibility open that children can improve. How do we do this?
A Silly Story
Imagine walking down your street, the morning dew still dampening the grass and the cars. You are trying to catch a sunrise promising to peak up over the horizon, turning the sky just a tinge of orange. A neighbour's door flips open two houses down and you can barely hear it's denizen call, "Bye kids, I'm off to work!" before the door slams such.
It's James, the office worker. He's clumsy but optimistic. You wonder if he'll have an accident this morning.
You watch Jim trot to the street and turn right at the sidewalk, facing away from you. His shiny shoes reflect the sky and you feel bad because he's sure to scuff them. He starts. His trot is smooth and he brings up the speed steadily. His feet turn over and his pants start to flap. The jacket flutters then snaps the air as he accelerates. You watch quietly, but your heart thunders inside you. Lightly and unconsciously your fist clenches. A whisper escapes your lips. "Faster James. A little faster. " He does go faster. His arms are re-purposed from pumping his run to sticking straight out, palms down. He looks like a running T. Fingers reaching to the horizons, they push down, forcing air to the ground, creating lift. The hands turn 90 degrees on the upstroke to cut instead of push the air, then flatten again for another downstroke. Your heart leaps. "Now James!". Though he cannot hear you and doesn't know that you are watching, he agrees and he steps larger, his legs widening. He starts to rise to his toes. Just the tips of his shoes touching now. His feet turn over several times a second, blurry from the speed. He lifts just a tiny bit. His chin pulls up, his chest drifts gently forward and his feet simply slide out behind him. It takes a quarter second for his body to hit the ground. It slides farther than yesterday, maybe because he kept his head up this time. When he stops, you notice the shoes are still shiny.
Nobody actually does this because nobody believes they can fly to work.
#1: Feedback: Reward Excellence
This is where we depart from Dweck's camp, but we are in good company. Rewards are complicated and dangerous beasts as they can destroy interests very quickly (the quickest way to make someone hate something is to pay them for it) or make children lose their minds. The correct way to use rewards is to give them only for good performance, never to offer them before the task is started, and offer the minimum reward. When I think of rewards most of the time I think simply of feedback.
Example: Suppose we are working with the child to improve reading.
Simply give an enthusiastic “Right” or “Excellent!” or give a high five after the child reads a new word for the first time or two. After that, no further reward is warranted for that word, unless maybe it is said smoothly instead of being sounded out. After awhile you don't even give a good job for words read well, maybe now the reward only comes if a phrase is read smoothly. Then a sentence. Then a paragraph, page, and so on. For a performance minded child, this sets the instinct that improvement is what matters.
Some recommend that performance is not to be rewarded. The reason they say this is because it fixates children on stagnation. Children will forever read that easy word hoping to get a high-five, without risking making mistakes by trying something difficult. Rewards for improvement, as I suggest, does not suffer from this because the child doesn't get rewarded repeatedly for the same great result. If the child did it a first time then it's a great achievement, but after a few times it's old news.
The same people who recommend not to reward for performance DO recommend rewarding effort. This is totally wrong, proven by many studies to destroy intrinsic motivation. It trains the child that EFFORT is rewarded, but NOT performance (because performance is NEVER rewarded). Therefore, what matters is trying hard … at anything. It could be simply undirected effort without any result. Basically putting the time in. It has the first added bonus that if the child knows there will be no reward then they will NOT put in the effort. Effort becomes tied to the expectation of a reward and psychologically the child begins to feel as though something is unfair if the effort attracts no reward. Finally, the child learns that performance is not important when, of course, it is often the only thing that matters in real life endeavours. They will spin harder instead of becoming more creative.
Where the "motivate effort" crowd are right is in their acknowledgment that effort is important. Expertise has been studied and it seems that the best predictor of expertise is deliberate practice, not any special power or genetic gifts. 10,000 hours seems to be a magic amount of effort to invest in order to become a world-class anything.
One more point on rewards and feedback. In simple tasks where the child more-or-less knows what to do, the expectation of a reward will improve performance. If the child suspects that if they read a sentence smoothly they'll impress mom and get a high five then they will try harder to do it. However, if the child does not know how to achieve a complicated task, then the thought of reward will consume mental resources to actually make them perform worse – again, a studied phenomenon related to cognitive load. It is almost like people lose their minds. The bigger the reward, the more it affects performance. You could offer a new reader a trip to Disneyworld to read “palaeoanthropic” in one try and they would probably do worse than if you offered them nothing, or a simple pat on the back. Therefore, prevent the expectation of a reward by rewarding only occasionally, and make the reward as small as possible to get a “hit” on motivation. Again, think of the reward as feedback: You're letting the child know they are on the right track rather than "paying" them ... you want the child to self-reward as much as possible.
#2: Detecting and Destroying Blocking Beliefs
Mindreading children is a whole other post, but I encourage development of that power as much as possible. Develop a sense of how children are handling things. Kids don't always just go out and say they think something is impossible. They also say things that sound like "I think it's impossible." but really mean "I don't want to" or just "Later". Children may pretend something is harder than it is so they don't have to try it. Also remember that children are always in a very demoralizing environment: Everyone else can do everything better than they can. At a young age, they know that they are the worst at everything.
Once the parent determines that my child really believes they can never accomplish something, the simplest way to blow down that barrier is to prove them wrong by leading them to a solution. To make it most meaningful, let the child figure it out themselves. The parent is there as a coach, prodding or hinting a little, but let the child have the genuine spark on their own. Try to sense which piece the child is missing but resist the temptation to reveal that piece. Work with the child patiently, as long as it takes, to break through. Here is where the child will be rewarded for effort … when it leads to success.
I guarantee that after a few belief barriers have been broken down then your child's claims of “this is impossible” will not be as strong. They will always have the doubt as whether it really is. Also, you will have a portfolio of “impossible things” the child accomplished to bring out in the future.
Example: Suppose the child is demoralized about reading and we think there may be a belief that they will never read as well as others.
We start by reminding the child that not long ago, they didn't even know the alphabet. The letters were so hard to remember yet now the letters are so familiar. Just like they learned to ride a bike or walk, the reading will come with practice. It's hard at first, but it gets easier and easier.
We might then define what it means to read well – some big definition. Perhaps it means reading words at a glance. So we simply go about learning two or three words very well. I always start with the words “The” and “And” because they appear in almost every sentence. So we start from there and have then memorize T-H-E spells “The”. Then I read and pause with my finger at every “The” and let the child read. Then I turn to a random page and have the child find all the “The”s. At this point, the child can “read”a whole page to extract a certain word. That's a big accomplishment if they couldn't even sound out a word before. The parent then rewards this huge accomplishment with an “Oh my gosh, you're well on your way to reading now. You just learned, in half an hour, how to read one word as well as an adult. Next time it's going to get easier and easier and soon you'll be able to read on your own.”
Belief barriers need to be destroyed as soon as possible. Once a particular belief becomes entrenched and the child builds upon it then the child becomes invested, and the more painful it is for the child to change that belief. This is also a well studied area of psychology where we know that most of the basis of a person's personality and belief systems are acquired as fairly children and that beliefs and personality change relatively little in adulthood. Adult belief change requires significant events because people defend their beliefs strongly, even in the face of evidence (The backfire effect: Where evidence against a position often strengthens that position). In learning, these axiomatic beliefs form the basis of mental “schema”, which are the mental representations of the world. If these representations are wrong then new learning is very difficult. Existing schemas are rarely questioned and new knowledge is more-or-less jammed in, or even ignored if it doesn't fit well.
One final bit I should point out is that children don't have to be average or “slow” to believe that their intelligence or creativity are limited. Some very gifted children and adults believe in the fixed mindset. It is just as important to break, if more difficult to detect, the barriers in an accomplished learner. This means giving them the conditions to grow at all times. Boring school where they are rewarded for being the smartest in the class is the worst thing for an intelligent student. Far better for them to be placed in an environment where they are challenged and growth is possible.
How about yours? Do you break down your children's limited beliefs? Do you see these limitations in others?