Teaching Kids to Struggle

The Achilles heel of education research is that findings tend to have a hard time moving from the journal page to the classroom. Nowhere is this more apparent than with the work on theories of intelligence, one the most simple, high-impact, and thoroughly researched concepts in educational psychology. Studies show that when students believe intelligence is malleable rather than fixed, they put forth more effort, persist longer in the face of difficulty, and have higher achievement in both the short term and long term. As your neighborhood drug dealer would say, “it’s good shit.”

Unfortunately, little progress has been made on actually ensuring students develop proper views about intelligence. Most of the research involves interventions that literally teach students the brain is a muscle that can get stronger, but it turns out that schools are loathe to take a few hours a month to teach kids a seemingly arbitrary lesson about their brains. The challenge has been to smoothly integrate theses lessons into existing curricula.

Given that students already spend too much time studying facts about famous people, the most simple solution would be to make sure some of those facts are about mistakes, struggles, or gradually becoming better at whatever it is that made the people famous. Right on cue, a new study shows that even when integrated into curricula, lessons about intelligence are still effective.

Two hundred and seventy-one high school students were randomly assigned to 1 of 3 conditions: (a) the struggle-oriented background information (n =90) condition, which presented students with stories about 3 scientists’ struggles in creating the content knowledge that the students were learning through online physics instructional units; (b) the achievement-oriented background information (n =88) condition, in which students learned about these 3 scientists’ lifetime achievements; and (c) a no background information (n=93) condition, a control group in which students mainly learned information about the physics contents they were studying. Our measures assessed perceptions of scientists, interest in physics lessons, recall of science concepts, and physics problem solving. We found that the achievement-oriented background information had negative effects on students’ perceptions of scientists, producing no effects on students’ interest in physics lessons, recall of science concepts, or their solving of both textbook-based and complex problems. In contrast, the struggle-oriented background information helped students create perceptions of scientists as hardworking individuals who struggled to make scientific progress. In addition, it also increased students’ interest in science, increased their delayed recall of the key science concepts, and improved their abilities to solve complex problems.

The key is that these types of selective history lessons shouldn’t be too much of a disruption. Before teaching the laws of motion it’s easy for teachers to take two minutes to show that Newton struggled. Or to show how Pythagoras failed. Or how FDR was unsure of his decisions. There is no reason these lessons can’t be built into every subject.

On a related note, I think it would be interesting to investigate whether the “struggle” narratives that are so widespread in art and writing contribute to the fact that, at least anecdotally, people seem to persist in writing and making art more than, say, attempting to become a physicist. (Alternatively, that may be the case because the starving artists of the world have no other skills.)
Hong, H., & Lin-Siegler, X. (2011). How learning about scientists’ struggles influences students’ interest and learning in physics. Journal of Educational Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0026224

4 Responses to Teaching Kids to Struggle

  1. The Ed Buzz says:

    Great points. We need to do a better job of teaching this. I especially like the idea of embedding it into the curriculum

  2. ngcouch says:

    What’s interesting is that this is something that we seem to have taken out of the curriculum. Looking through educational material from, say, the 50’s there are lots of stories about people not giving up and persevering in the face of adversity. Heck, I remember being taught that Abraham Lincoln was a failure at pretty much everything he did until he was elected President.

    As to your last point:

    I think it’s more likely that it’s easier to continue to be a writer in the face of failure. I may have all of my manuscripts rejected, but no one is taking away my pen. If I wanted to be a physicist, and no one is willing to fund my project, that’s it. I can’t do any experiments. The costs are prohibitively high.

    BUT: I could be a theorist! There are tons of people with no formal physics or mathematical education who claim to have overturned Einstein. They are all probably wrong, of course, and everyone has told them this, but they persist.

  3. Having taught school at one time, I can tell you that while a teacher may be a whiz at teaching content area, most of them are woefully short on information about the struggles of the people who made the discoveries, inventions, compositions, etc. Teachers, in our modern “foster high self-esteem and minimize failures” educational climate tend to tell students that it’s OK to have problems with spelling, writing, grammar, math, etc. instead of telling them that not everybody has talent for every subject, but that in areas that a student has particular problems they need to work harder at that subject. Ultimately, what we are fostering is a system that means it is better to feel good about your failures than it is to keep trying in the face of difficulties.

  4. Pingback: There's No Such Thing As a Good Stereotype - Peer-reviewed by my neurons | Peer-reviewed by my neurons

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