Rethinking Failure, Growth and Intelligence – Let the Games Begin!

Jackie Gingrich Cushman
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Posted: Feb 03, 2008 12:01 AM
Rethinking Failure, Growth and Intelligence – Let the Games Begin!

At least now when I fail – I will feel a bit better.

I don’t know about you, but I hate failure. I have never liked failure and I have often avoided playing games to prevent failure. On the rare occasions when I do play games, I usually pick games I think I will win. Luckily, this habit of avoiding games has not appeared in my children. This past weekend, I could hear the peals of laughter from the den. My mother and my two children were playing a game of chance and strategy. There were instances when each of the children became upset, and almost quit. My mother encouraged them to stay in the game. Following her advice, they each won a round. The game soon ended, and while my mother did not win a round, my guess is that she considers teaching them persistence her reward.

An article I recently read, “The Secret to Raising a Smart Kid,” By Dr. Carol Dweck, (Scientific American Mind, December 2007) sheds light on why I might care about winning or losing a game. I have been more concerned with looking smart than with learning – forgetting that learning requires accepting risk and the possibility of failure.

What about you? Do you believe that intelligence is fixed or malleable?

According to Dweck, your beliefs about your ability to affect your intelligence might be more important than your actual intelligence.

Whether students believe in a growth mind set or a fixed mind set affects how hard they will work and how they will react to inevitable failure, according to Dweck. Her research has indicated that it’s better for children to believe that hard work matters, than for them to believe that they are smart.

Students with a growth mindset believe that “intelligence is malleable and can be developed through education and hard work,” she wrote. The ones who hold a fixed mind set “believe that intelligence is a fixed trait.”

Which group do you fit into?

“The students with a growth mind-set felt that learning was a more important goal in school than getting good grades,” she wrote. “In addition, they held hard work in high regard, believing that the more you labored at something, the better you would become at it. They understood that even geniuses have to work hard for their great accomplishments.”

When failure inevitably occurred, “students with a growth mind-set said they would study harder or try a different strategy for mastering the material.” Their belief that they had an impact on the outcome through the application of their effort led them to work harder or create a new approach.

“The students who held a fixed mind-set, however, were concerned about looking smart with little regard for learning,” noted the article. “They had negative views of effort, believing that having to work hard at something was a sign of low ability. They thought that a person with talent or intelligence did not need to work hard to do well.”

This also affected the response to inevitable failure or roadblock. “Attributing a bad grade to their own lack of ability, those with a fixed mind-set said that they would study less in the future, try never to take that subject again and consider cheating on future tests.”

While this might appear controversial on the surface, it makes perfect sense. Why would people apply effort if they believe that the outcome is fixed? If you were to be labeled smart or stupid forever, then effort would not matter.

This means that our steady stream of praise to our children for being smart has been undermining their potential performance. After all, if they are so smart, there is more at risk if they fail and lose the label of smart. If they are dumb, then they believe they cannot learn.

Instead, children should be told that brains can grow and change and they should be rewarded for their hard work. Praise should include specific reference to their actions that lead to success rather than to their innate intelligence.

What if, instead of being labeled “smart” or “dumb,” kids were told that brains grow over time and that their ability to learn is linked to hard work and effort?

Students can control how hard they work and the effort they expend. They can learn to reevaluate the situation after failure to determine if more work, or a different approach might lead to the desired results. They cannot control being labeled dumb or smart. The ability to have an impact on an outcome is one of the key factors that affect whether one perceives it is worth working for a different outcome.

The important lesson is not that people are smart or stupid, but that, through effort and hard work, brains can grow and people can change.

Old habits are hard to break, and it is not that I want to embrace failure, but now I can try to recast my failures as temporary setbacks on the path to learning.

In any event, now it is time for me to go and play a few games, without the fear of failure.

100 Days to Go