Back to School Psychology

Why the right mental outlook should be at the top of your back-to-school list.

Posted Aug 29, 2010

Back to School
It's that time of year again. Teachers are updating lesson plans and setting up classrooms. Kids eagerly await news of which friends from last year will be in their class once more. Parents are buying school supplies and getting the ole' car pool warmed up. So when it comes to starting your own back-to-school shopping, don't forget perhaps the most important item on the list: the right frame of mind.

Whether you're a parent, teacher, or student, the way you approach learning (and how you think about intelligence more generally) has lasting impact. When you go through life thinking of intelligence as a fluid concept–when you see intellect as a muscle that gets stronger with repeated resistance-based exercise–you set the stage for academic success and improvement. But when you view intelligence as a fixed entity or a trait with predetermined level, all you do is you set yourself up for frustration and disengagement.

Take, for example, an interaction I had with a first-grader while chaperoning a field trip for my daughter's class last spring. The idea for the outing seemed sound in theory: accompany the kids to downtown Boston so they could visit the sites and retrace the steps depicted in a children's book they'd been reading in class.

School Bus
In practice, however, our charge as chaperones was far more daunting: ride on a noisy school bus for an hour, then try to coax 5 first-graders into sitting quietly at a busy city park to read a storybook together. Right, because that's what kids who have been cooped up on a bus want to do when they get to a park, sit in a quiet circle to look at a book they've already seen. Not to mention that there was a playground in front of us and a wading pool behind us–what, was this some sort of sadistic payback from the teachers for a subpar holiday gift or something?

As I watched my group of 7-year-olds break into an impromptu reenactment of Lord of the Flies, and as I caught a glimpse of my fellow parents trying to wrangle their youth squadrons into reading formation, I decided the situation called for an audible. I explained as enthusiastically as I could to my daughter and her friends the rules of the "very exciting new game" we were going to play:

• Step 1: Each child takes a turn reading a sentence from the book.

• Step 2: Everyone runs down the slope to the fence 30 yards away, then runs back up the hill to the bench I'm sitting on.

• Step 3: Repeat Steps 1 and 2 until the field trip is over. Or until someone collapses.

It worked pretty well; eventually, we got through the whole storybook and the kids burned off energy. The only snag in the plan (aside from a few quizzical looks from the teachers sitting nearby), was that half-way through, one of the boys informed me that he didn't want to take his reading turn–he just wanted to run. When I asked him why, he explained, "I'm not good at reading."

This is the fixed view of intelligence. And we all harbor this type of thought from time to time, whether related to academic performance, general intellect, or other forms of competence. My daughter's classmate didn't look particularly sad or embarrassed when he told me this–he just stated it matter-of-factly. In his mind (perhaps reinforced by subtle or not-so-subtle feedback he had received from others), reading just wasn't his cup of tea. And there wasn't anything anyone could do about it.

But that's where he was wrong. Sure, as long as he continued to believe that he "just isn't good at it," he wasn't going to get any better. Change the way he thinks about the task, however, and his skills might develop accordingly. This we learn from the research of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck.

Like in one study of college freshmen in Hong Kong, in which Dweck and colleagues presented students with a series of statements regarding the stability of intelligence, including "you have a certain amount of intelligence and you really can't do much to change it." Based on students' agreement with ideas such as this one, the researchers assembled two groups: those who saw their own intelligence as a predetermined, stable entity and those who thought of their intellect in more malleable terms.

The freshmen were then asked whether they intended to enroll in a remedial English course. Not surprisingly, those who had aced their high school English certification exam were less likely to plan on taking such a course than students who had scored in the C-range or worse. But even among low-performing students, those who viewed intelligence as etched in stone saw no need for remedial work. They were already as good as they were going to get at English, they figured. So why bother? Only the low-performers with a less fixed view of intellect were willing to sign up for the additional English work they needed.

In other words, seeing the self as a static and stable entity puts us on the defensive and can even mandate self-deception. Think of a characteristic like intelligence in terms of fixed capacity and the poor exam grade or below average performance review becomes intolerably threatening. Instead, we benefit when we train ourselves to view intellect–and any other aspect of our personal skill set–as a muscle that grows with effort and atrophies with neglect. Even if this isn't how you usually see things, it's not too late to start now.

Because in a follow-up study, the same researchers gave a new group of students one of two different, ostensibly scientific articles–articles that either depicted intelligence in static or flexible terms. Those led to think about intelligence as a fixed quantity took the easy way out: they didn't persist on tasks in the wake of poor performance and they avoided taking on new challenges later. Only students told that intelligence was malleable showed the stick-to-it-iveness necessary for self-improvement.

So I shared my muscle analogy with my first-grade field-tripper, the recalcitrant reader. I explained that just as you have to struggle with weights to make, say, your biceps bigger, the same goes for exercise of the mind. Now, I'm not going to tell you that this brief conversation led to some sort of life-altering epiphany, but he did give up on the idea of skipping his turn and tried his best to read with us for the remainder of the book.

These are important lessons to bear in mind as a new school year dawns:

• Think "I'm just not good at X" enough times, and eventually you'll guarantee the accuracy of the assessment.

• Instead, remember that setback and trial-and-error are parts of broadening your intellectual horizons.

• And never, ever forget that when filling out the chaperone volunteer form, any field trip with a description involving "walking tour" and "city park" is to be avoided at all costs.


Like this post? Then check out Sam's forthcoming book, Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World (available now for pre-order).  You can also follow Sam on Facebook here and on Twitter here.  Book trailer video below: