The physicist Niels Bohr once defined an expert as “a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.” Bohr’s quip summarizes one of the essential lessons of learning, which is that people learn how to get it right by getting it wrong again and again. Education isn’t magic. Education is the wisdom wrung from failure.
The key point that Lehrer emphasizes is one’s psychological response to mistakes. Some students turn away from their errors, because they don’t wish to be reminded that they might not be smart. The most effective learners turn towards their errors, digging deeply into them to understand why they made a mistake, thereby developing a deeper understanding.
The problem with praising kids for their innate intelligence — the “smart” compliment — is that it misrepresents the psychological reality of education. It encourages kids to avoid the most useful kind of learning activities, which is when we learn from our mistakes. Because unless we experience the unpleasant symptoms of being wrong — that surge of Pe activity a few hundred milliseconds after the error, directing our attention to the very thing we’d like to ignore — the mind will never revise its models. We’ll keep on making the same mistakes, forsaking self-improvement for the sake of self-confidence. Samuel Beckett had the right attitude: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
The bottom line is that intelligence is not fixed, and can be nurtured. Rather it’s what we do that can make us intelligent, or not. So the onus is on teachers (and parents) to choose excellent activities for students and then to nurture them through the activities with excellent feedback and praising effort a la Dweck.
And the article reinforces my comments about grading and the structure of our education system in yesterday’s post. Typical school environments (with their fixed class lengths, rigid curricula, lack of opportunities for playful exploration, high-stakes testing, and monomania about grades) promote anxiety and fear of errors, so how can we expect students to develop healthy responses to mistakes in such environments?
The entire article is highly recommended.