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Saturday, 24 March 2018

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How Do Kids Think About Effort and Ability?

By Gordon Eldridge, TIE Columnist


How Do Kids Think About Effort and Ability?
There is a lot of talk in schools these days about Carol Dweck’s research around growth mindset. The consensus seems to be that we can use this idea to motivate students by planting a fruitful seed—that intelligence and ability are malleable—which should increase their learning motivation. It is therefore timely that Katherine Muenks of Indiana University and David Miele of Boston College have published a research synthesis examining what we currently know about the ways in which students connect notions of effort and ability.

The synthesis allows us to place Dweck’s findings in a broader context, rather than focus on one piece of what turns out to be a very complex puzzle. In this short summary, it will be impossible to do justice to Muenks and Miele’s comprehensive synthesis of the research in this area, but I will to and draw out some of the main themes.

What does the research synthesis tell us?

Three main sets of factors seem to influence the way students think about effort and ability:
1. Developmental factors: John Nicholls (1978) found that very young children (around ages 5–6) tend to see effort as the primary indicator of ability, but that as they move through school, their understanding of the two concepts becomes more differentiated. By the time they are around 12 or 13, most children see effort and ability as independent causes of outcomes, believing that ability causally affects effort by limiting or increasing its effectiveness.

2. Contextual factors: John Nicholls (1984) found that in “ego-involved” situations, where the situation asks students to demonstrate normative levels of ability or where social comparison or competition are involved, students tend to see ability as a factor that constrains their efforts to develop skills or knowledge. On the other hand, in “task-involved” situations, where there is less of an element of social comparison and students are focused on their own mastery or competence, they tend to view ability as the skills or knowledge they will be able to develop through effort.

3. Individual factors: Carol Dweck (1999) found that individuals who believe that intellectual ability is fixed and unchanging tend to believe that, no matter how much effort they expend, their ability will not increase significantly. They therefore believe that those who need to put a bigger amount of effort into a task are necessarily less innately intelligent or able. This is sometimes referred to as an “entity theory” of ability. On the other hand, those who believe that intellect and ability are malleable tend to believe that the greater the effort you expend, the greater your chance of improving your abilities and attaining mastery. This is sometimes referred to as an incremental theory of ability or intelligence.

4. A crossover between contextual and individual factors: Muenks, Miele, and Wigfield (2016), building on the work of Heyman and Compton (2006), found that conceptions of ability may not be exclusively what influences students’ conceptions of the connections between ability and effort. Beliefs about effort may also play a role, but these may also vary across contexts. They identified a difference between, on one hand, what students saw as task-elicited effort, where the effort being expended is seen as a sign of the difficulty of the task and therefore indicative of low ability; and on the other, self-initiated effort, where the effort is perceived as coming from the individual’s desire to strive for mastery. In this second case, the effort may actually be seen by some as an indication of high ability.

So how can we pull together this vast range of factors, which seem at times to be contradictory? If students’ conceptions of ability, as described by Dweck, are relatively stable, how can we get such variation across contexts? Muenks and Miele propose that there are two ways to view ability. Students could view it as current level of competence, the set of skills they currently have; or they could view it as capacity, the rate at which they acquire new skills and knowledge or use those to perform a task. Depending on which aspect of ability they are focusing on, their views about effort may shift.

A focus on capacity in any give situation may lead students to believe they had to work hard on the task because of their low ability. Conversely, a focus on current level of competence may lead students to view their effort on the same task as more self-initiated effort and therefore as leading over time to greater competence.

Combining these two conceptions of ability into a single view allows us and our students to understand how apparently stable conceptions of ability and intelligence may vary not only across situations but even possibly while performing a single task. Within the context of a short-term task, the unit or effort a student must expend to improve competence to a certain level are determined by his or her current level of ability. However, over multiple tasks in the longer term, the student’s increasing level of ability will mean that capacity (the speed at which ability improves) will also become faster. Surely this is the nuanced conception of ability we would like our students to reach.

What might this mean for our schools?

Muenks and Miele assert that their ideas about the two views of ability require empirical validation. They also note that they could be mapped onto other ideas, such as entity or incremental theories of intelligence in multiple ways. However, they make at least a few suggestions about practical actions we can take in the classroom that engage our current understanding of the way students think about ability and effort. We should:

1. Praise self-initiated effort and positive steps students are taking in the processes they are using to complete a task, as these may lead students to associate directed effort with increases in ability and thus lead them to develop an incremental theory of intelligence and ability (Dweck’s growth mindset).

2. Create a “mastery-oriented” classroom that engages students in task-involved situations where they focus on developing their own competence as opposed to comparing themselves to a norm or to other students.

A further suggestion that seems to emerge strongly from this research involves creating systems that help students identify and analyze their progress across multiple tasks and, where possible, beyond a single subject or year level. This may help them develop a view of ability that concedes that current levels of ability may mean slower progress in developing capacity initially, but that expending effort at this stage can speed their growth towards expertise in the longer term. Go slow to go fast!

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