Why do we still say things like, “my smart students”?

Below are three excerpts I use in my workshops with parents and teachers. They just scratch the surface of research telling us that we underestimate the potential of students and that our beliefs have a tremendous impact on achievement. What do you think?

Teachers’ Expectations Can Influence How Students Perform

(adapted from NPR article by Alix Spiegel, September 17, 2012)

The first psychologist to systematically study this was a Harvard professor named Robert Rosenthal in 1964. The idea was to figure out what would happen if teachers were told that certain kids in their class were destined to succeed. Rosenthal told the teachers that a very special test from Harvard had the very special ability to predict which kids were about to experience a dramatic growth in their IQ.

After the kids took the test, he then chose from every class several children totally at random. There was nothing at all to distinguish these kids from the other kids, but he told their teachers that the test predicted the kids were on the verge of an intense intellectual bloom.

As he followed the children over the next two years, Rosenthal discovered that the teachers’ expectations of these kids really did affect the students. “If teachers had been led to expect greater gains in IQ, then increasingly, those kids gained more IQ,” he says. But just how do expectations influence IQ?

As Rosenthal did more research, he found that expectations affect teachers’ moment-to-moment interactions with the children they teach in a thousand almost invisible ways. Teachers give the students that they expect to succeed more time to answer questions, more specific feedback, and more approval: They consistently touch, nod and smile at those kids more.

How Not to Talk to Your Kids

(excerpt from New York Magazine article by Po Bronson, August 3, 2007)

Professor Carol Dweck sent four female research assistants into New York fifth-grade classrooms. The researchers would take a single child out of the classroom for a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of puzzles—puzzles easy enough that all the children would do fairly well. Once the child finished the test, the researchers told each student his score, then gave him a single line of praise. Randomly divided into groups, some were praised for their intelligence. They were told, “You must be smart at this.” Other students were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.”

Why just a single line of praise? “We wanted to see how sensitive children were,” Dweck explained. “We had a hunch that one line might be enough to see an effect.”

Then the students were given a choice of test for the second round. One choice was a test that would be more difficult than the first, but the researchers told the kids that they’d learn a lot from attempting the puzzles. The other choice, Dweck’s team explained, was an easy test, just like the first. Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The “smart” kids took the cop-out.

The Genius in All of Us by David Shenk

Toronto educator John Mighton was shocked to learn how far and fast so called learning-impaired students could progress with the right teaching methods. He realized that countless numbers of math students get left behind at one point or another simply because they can’t quite grasp one small concept; then they quickly lose confidence in their ability to go forward, and their abilities stagnate. Mighton’s response was to break down math concepts into the most easily digestible form and help students build skills and confidence in tandem. “With proper teaching and minimal tutorial support,” he writes in his book The Myth of Ability, “a Grade 3 class could easily reach a Grade 6 or 7 level in all areas of the mathematics curriculum without a single student being left behind.”


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