Malleable intelligence

Dear colleagues,

I've been reading a book titled Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid, edited by Robert J. Sternberg (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002). Let me tell you about one of the chapters, by Carol S. Dweck, "Beliefs that make smart people dumb" (pp. 24-41), which covers material highly relevant to us both as teachers and researchers.

Dweck describes two principal beliefs about intelligence: (1) intelligence is fixed and (2) intelligence is malleable, namely "a potential that can be developed." People who believe intelligence is malleable are usually better off, because they think that a particular performance - such as a mark on an assignment or a referee's report - simply records how well they did at that particular task, and that by working harder they can do better. On the other hand, people who believe intelligence is a fixed trait tend to believe a performance measures their worthiness as a person. This belief actually makes them poorer learners, because they're afraid of failure: "If a valuable learning opportunity contains the risk of errors or requires them to confront a deficiency, they may well sacrifice that opportunity" (p. 31). Furthermore, some people who believe in fixed intelligence will "directly sabotage their accomplishments by withholding effort" in order to save face from failure (p. 32).

According to the malleable view of intelligence, a great many people are capable of great things - but to accomplish this they have to work at it, long and hard. Even those people we call geniuses had to work long and hard: ten years of sustained effort is considered the minimum for a major contribution in any field. Those who believe in malleable intelligence more often enjoy work. According to Dweck, "... creativity researchers agree that motivation is the key ingredient in creative contribution and creative genius" (p. 34, emphasis in the original). She summarises her research-based view about intelligence this way: "... people are, to a large extent, in charge of their own intelligence. Being smart - and staying smart - is not just a gift, not just a product of their genetic good fortune. It is very much a product of what they put into it. It means that being smart is a long process of self-development and self-discovery."

For the purpose of getting our students - or ourselves for that matter - to achieve at the highest level, over the long term, the key is to promote sustainable motivation.

Brian Martin
8 November 2005

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