Children’s learning benefits when adults react constructively to failures

Photo: Jeffrey Zeldman. Creative Commons.

When parents and teachers focus on students’ process of learning more than on their raw talent, they foster positive growth mindsets.

A child achieves a high math score. “You’re so smart,” says the teacher, praising her. A child flunks a test and a parent offers support for his learning: “Never mind,” says the parent comfortingly. “You tried your best.”

These are typical examples of well-intentioned adults trying to help children. The grown-ups in these instances have progressive ideas: they recognize that emotional well-being is crucial for learning. Yet, like many parents and teachers, they’re not necessarily helping either child in the long run. What they said may actually discourage learning by bolstering unhelpful mindsets.

Research shows that praising personal attributes tends to make children think they have a certain amount of ability and can’t do much to change it. That’s called a “fixed mindset”. Focusing instead on the process of learning is more likely to help children develop in the long run.

Studies have found that praising children’s intelligence and natural ability – saying things like “You’re so smart” – though it sounds encouraging, may ultimately lead children to reject hard tasks in favor of easier ones that pose no threat to their “smartness. Later, when given harder problems, these children are more likely to believe that the difficulty they’re having reflects poorly on their intelligence. If success means they are smart, failure implies that they are not, so they may stop trying.

“‘You’re so smart’ - though it sounds encouraging – may be the wrong approach. It can ultimately lead children to reject hard tasks in favor of easier ones that pose no threat to their ‘smartness.’”

The prognosis for learning is also undermined for the child who is praised for doing their best after failing the math test. Here the parent is applauding effort but saying that the child’s best effort is a failure, implying that the child can never do better. Once more, adults may inadvertently encourage children to develop a fixed mindset about their abilities, which may diminish their capacity to learn in the future.

Consequences for lifelong learning

These research findings matter a great deal. Today’s educational systems are meant to be shifting from traditional models of simply imparting knowledge to a new goal of fostering lifelong learning. This shift is vital so that people will be able to adapt throughout their lives to rapidly changing economies. To this end, children need parents and teachers who give them helpful messages about their capacity to learn and grow, especially when they struggle at first.

However, mindsets’ research questions the design of some education systems which, while typically espousing goals of lifelong learning, may inadvertently do just the opposite by teaching to high-stakes tests. These may send the message that what’s valued most are fixed aptitudes being measured with one test. Such assessment systems can demotivate many students who have the ability to improve and learn, but who may come away with a fixed mindset, believing that they can’t do any better, thus damaging their future prospects. Pressure to perform may be highly counterproductive in the long run, even when it comes to test scores.

Positive approaches to learning require parents, teachers and education systems that foster “growth mindsets” in students – the belief that they can develop their ability through hard work, good strategies and instruction from others. Numerous studies have demonstrated that children who hold such beliefs are more open to learning and perform better academically. For instance, in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Susana Claro and colleagues surveyed all the 10th grade students in Chile and found that across all income levels, the more students held a growth mindset, the better they performed on standardized tests.

learning praise
Photo: Matt Marquez. Creative Commons.

Developing growth mindsets

The good news is that growth mindsets can be nurtured. Studies show that interventions which directly teach a growth mindset can improve students’ achievement over time. These programs convey to students that their brains can grow stronger by taking on hard tasks and persisting. How, though, do these mindsets develop naturally?

Researchers are still discovering new ways to foster such mindsets in school and at home, but we know that the way adults respond to children’s successes and failures plays a role. Children’s growth mindsets develop when adults focus not simply on students’ personal traits and abilities, but on the process and strategies students use in their learning.

The bad news is that adults’ own growth mindsets are often not passed on to children. Recent research shows that parents and teachers who have growth mindsets themselves may not foster it in their children. Like others, they are prone to falling into the trap of focusing on personal traits that can lead to fixed mindsets and less openness to adventurous learning.

Adult attitudes to failure influence mindsets

Adults should be aware of how they speak and interact with children. A key issue appears to be considering their attitudes to failure. My research with Carol Dweck has found that parents who viewed failure as a chance to learn were more likely to respond by focusing on their children’s process of learning, thus encouraging a growth mindset. They tended to discuss what children could learn from the experience of failure, how they could study their mistakes to improve, and how they might consider asking for help from the teacher. These parents were less likely to respond to failure with concerns about their children’s lack of abilities, and less likely to pity them or comfort them for not having enough ability.

“Children need parents and teachers who give them helpful messages about their capacity to learn, even if they struggle at first.”

In the classroom, recent studies have shown that teachers who successfully foster growth mindsets in their students tend to discuss how struggle, effort, and negative emotions like frustration are natural and useful parts of the learning process. “Confusion in math can happen,” explained one teacher. “And that confusion can be beautiful.”

Interestingly, these teachers tend to frame themselves as working together with the students, sharing accountability for their learning process: “Together, we will make sure you master this.” In contrast, teachers whose students had more fixed mindsets tended to emphasize that students should try hard on their own. This research suggests that a sense of shared responsibility for the learning process may help students avoid seeing their setbacks as a sign of their own personal shortcomings, so that failure doesn’t inhibit their learning in the future.

We have much yet to learn about fostering mindsets that help students learn more in school and later in life. But it’s clear that educators need to structure school environments to promote and value learning processes that are linked to learning outcomes, rather than simply focusing on children’s raw abilities and talent.