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Effort vs. intelligence: The woman who paved the way for education

When Carol Dweck was a young graduate student at Yale, she became fascinated by a question: What made some children give up in the face of initial failures, and others motivated?

The children who chalked up their defeats to a lack of ability often became discouraged when attempting to do other things of which they were quite capable. Those who believed they had flopped because they hadn't tried hard enough were often inspired to do better.

The phenomenon in which early setbacks convinced students they weren't able to complete other tasks was given a name: learned helplessness.

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Ms. Dweck decided to conduct an experiment that would become her PhD dissertation and ultimately change the course of her life.

She assembled a group of elementary schoolchildren identified by their teachers as "helpless": if they encountered equations they couldn't solve, they suddenly couldn't finish ones they'd successfully completed earlier.

The group was divided into two: one group was trained to attribute their errors to a lack of effort and were encouraged to keep plugging away. The children in this cluster learned to push on in the face of adversity and often ended up succeeding. The other set of students was not coached one way or the other. They showed no improvement at all.

Ms. Dweck's paper on the subject would become one of the most widely referenced in contemporary psychology.

The positive reception her investigation received inspired Ms. Dweck to make the area her life's work. It would be the catalyst for a new field of educational psychology: achievement goal theory. She would come to believe that people who held a "fixed mindset" saw intelligence as something established at birth. People with a "growth mindset" viewed the brain as malleable and a complex organ that could be trained to produce better results.

On that score, Ms. Dweck believes students can be taught to adopt a "growth mindset" if it is demonstrated to them that the brain, through hard work and persistence, is capable of producing greater results. She also adheres to the creed that praising children for their intelligence, rather than their effort, robs them of motivation.

The Stanford University professor is 71 now and her views on learning and intelligence have been the subject of much praise and debate for years. Her 2006 book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, was a massive bestseller. So why are we talking about her today?

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Because Ms. Dweck has been named an inaugural winner of the Yidan Prize. Never heard of it? That's okay, you're not alone. But it's now one of the richest annual awards of its kind, ever: $8-million (U.S.) each, to be split evenly between two winners. It is named after its benefactor, Charles Chen Yidan, a Chinese tech billionaire who wants to scale up innovative research projects around the world, particularly in impoverished countries.

It is a massive deal. Ms. Dweck will be able to carry her message, and teaching techniques, to many parts of the world. This will make many educators happy. But certainly not all.

While Ms. Dweck has her supporters, she has fierce detractors as well. Her theories have been denounced in some circles as overly simplistic in the tradition of self-help books. One of those who thinks Ms. Dweck's work misses the mark is Alfie Kohn, an American author and lecturer on the subject of education and human behaviour.

He wrote a piece for Salon a couple of years ago that likened Ms. Dweck's proposition that kids perform better if they see the merits of hard work to a "verbal doggie biscuit" and a "patronizing pat on the head." (You really tried hard! Good student!) He cited his own studies that show students praised for good effort by their teachers often interpret it as a sign that they're dumb, not smart.

Being the recipient of the Yidan Prize is certain to subject Ms. Dweck's work to renewed scrutiny and criticism. Academics can be a deeply insecure and jealous bunch and they like to tear down people who are succeeding where they aren't – especially at an age when many professors are fully retired.

While I agree that mindset is not the only factor determining a child's success in school – skill of the teacher and home setting are also huge indicators – it is an important one. If a child convinces himself early on that he's stupid, it can set a deleterious path for the future.

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The Yidan Prize is certain to help shape education innovation around the globe. Carol Dweck sets a high standard for recipients to come.

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