How Generalizations About Learning Hurt Student Motivation

Recent research on implicit theories of intelligence (i.e. whether you believe intelligence is fixed or malleable) has paved the way for some of the most promising low-cost high-reward educational interventions. For example, a series of short lessons about the brain’s potential to grow like a muscle can have significant and long-lasting effects on student achievement. Even something as simple as responding to good work with “you worked so hard” rather than “you’re so smart” can make a difference.

The problem, as a new study shows, is that there are countless inputs that go into forming a child’s beliefs about intelligence. A pair of experiments led by Andrei Cimpian of the University of Illinois discovered that simply linking success in something to a social group — for example, telling children that “girls are good at soccer” — can lower performance by instilling the mindset that intelligence is fixed.

We hypothesized that the mere act of linking success at an unfamiliar, challenging activity to a social group gives rise to entity beliefs that are so powerful as to interfere with children’s ability to perform the activity. Two experiments showed that, as predicted, the performance of 4- to 7-year-olds (N = 192) was impaired by exposure to information that associated success in the task at hand with membership in a certain social group (e.g., “boys are good at this game”), regardless of whether the children themselves belonged to that group.

The bad news is that blanket statements about groups is rampant is society. Even serious education policy analysis often contains some form of the sentence “underprivileged kids from a poor socio-economic background can’t/are bad at/have no chance to….”. Kids hear these things, whether it be from other kids, teachers, parents, or strangers, and they do have an effect.

I also think there’s a more abstract lesson about the diminishing returns modern humans are experiencing when it comes to broad “un-nuanced” generalizations. The reason people categorize things is because it’s often a useful heuristic for making sense of the world. But as our cognitive abilities have become more advanced the number of categorizations that benefit society (e.g. all berries with red spots are poisonous) is decreasing while the number of categorizations that can cause great harm to society (e.g. all tea party supporters are violent racists) seems to be increasing.

Over the next 100 years a key piece of human cognitive development will be finding ways to learn and teach how to instinctively understand the variation and flexibility within categorizations, and how to quickly break them into less biased and more useful increments. For example, when an 8-year-old girl hears “girls are bad at math,” it would be great if she had the psychological skills necessary to instantly interpret it as “from a statistical standpoint, girls tend to get lower scores on math tests, but this in no way means that working hard will not allow me to be better at math.”
Cimpian, A., Mu, Y., & Erickson, L. (2012). Who Is Good at This Game? Linking an Activity to a Social Category Undermines Children’s Achievement Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797611429803

One Response to How Generalizations About Learning Hurt Student Motivation

  1. Prof.Pedant says:

    Continuing your last sentence: and understand that the historical existence of statistical evidence that “girls are bad at math” does not in fact demonstrate that “girls are bad at math”.

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