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This report on NPR asks the question, “How do attitudes toward struggle impact learning?”  The basis of the report is research done by Dr. Jim Stigler, a professor at UCLA.  His findings echo what Dr. Carol Dweck says in her book, Mindset.

“I think that from very early ages we [in America] see struggle as an indicator that you’re just not very smart,” Stigler says. “It’s a sign of low ability — people who are smart don’t struggle, they just naturally get it, that’s our folk theory.”

The central finding of Dr. Dweck’s research is that success is the outgrowth of an attitude that one’s potential is unknown.  If a person believes that their skills are predetermined they also tend to believe their potential is limited.  The reporter provides an example from another researcher that supports this finding (emphasis mine).

She shared with me one conversation that she had recorded between an American mother and her 8-year-old son.

The mother and the son are discussing books. The son, though young, is a great student who loves to learn. He tells his mother that he and his friends talk about books even during recess, and she responds with this:

Mother: Do you know that’s what smart people do, smart grown-ups?

Child: I know … talk about books.

Mother: Yeah. So that’s a pretty smart thing to do to talk about a book.

Child: Hmmm mmmm.

It’s a small exchange — a moment. But Li says, this drop of conversation contains a world of cultural assumptions and beliefs.

Essentially, the American mother is communicating to her son that the cause of his success in school is his intelligence. He’s smart — which, Li says, is a common American view.

“The idea of intelligence is believed in the West as a cause,” Li explains. “She is telling him that there is something in him, in his mind, that enables him to do what he does.”

Obviously if struggle indicates weakness — a lack of intelligence — it makes you feel bad, and so you’re less likely to put up with it. But if struggle indicates strength — an ability to face down the challenges that inevitably occur when you are trying to learn something — you’re more willing to accept it.

How do you overcome this view?  Drs. Stigler, Li and Dweck agree that the best approach is to focus on process instead of ability.  The quote below illustrates how an Asian parent interacts with her child.

She shares another conversation, this time between a Taiwanese mother and her 9-year-old son. They are talking about the piano — the boy won first place in a competition, and the mother is explaining to him why.

“You practiced and practiced with lots of energy,” she tells him. “It got really hard, but you made a great effort. You insisted on practicing yourself.”

“So the focus is on the process of persisting through it despite the challenges, not giving up, and that’s what leads to success,” Li says.

If you follow this blog you know that I view Dr. Dweck’s research with very high regard.  Any learning professional, whether they work with children or adults, will tell you that attitude is everything.  This report shows that its not just an attitude toward the subject but one’s attitude about him- or herself that determines success.

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