Is smart smart?

Sutton’s blog post on Dweck’s article concerning nature vs behavior raised a number of interesting questions.  Dweck’s research looks at natural aptitudes and their development due to an encouraging environment.  Her research attempts to show that intelligence is more malleable when the subjects believe it is malleable.  She suggests that this can be a problem for both “smart” and “not smart” people.

The reason it is a problem for those who believe that they are somehow intellectually inferior is obvious.  Some people are discouraged early on and do not think it is possible for them to improve.  Because of this they do not do what is necessary to become star students and their grades suffer.  One of the more unfortunate sides of this is that some African-American students subconsciously believe they are not as naturally bright as other students.  Because of this many do not achieve the same things as students of other ethnicities.  If this phenomena is true, I believe it may create a negative feedback loop in which one generation of African-Americans fail because of low self expectations.  This failure may cause the stereotype that they are worse students to be reinforced, and therefore cause the next generation to expect little of itself and then achieve little.  This has the potential to be a continuous, and vicious, cycle.

The other way Dweck believes that the assumption that intelligence is a set quantity that cannot be grown, is with those who believe themselves to be very smart already.  She says that they believe they cannot learn anymore so they see no need to push themselves.  This can hurt them in activities that are not intuitive to anyone.  They believe that if something is hard and they don’t get it it will show they are not “smart” so they avoid it and stick to the subjects where they have the most confidence.

I can personally relate very much to the latter point she makes.  Often times in high school or my undergraduate career I just assumed that I could get by in classes without reading the book regularly and cramming everything in before the tests.  The problem was that most of the time this worked for me.  This only reinforced these bad habits and stunted my growth as a student (especially the studying aspect of it).  Luckily, I eventually ran into college calculus and I discovered that I would have to start studying or I wouldn’t make it through school.

I believe that this was a very well written study with some good points.  The thing about the African-Americans not believing in themselves subconsciously was very interesting.  I’m not totally sure if it is true or not but she supports it well so it could have something to it.  Do you think there is something there?  Or are poor grades across differing ethnicities merely the product of different physical environments?  Also, do you think you have trapped yourself in a box of thinking you were only so smart?  I know I was once guilty of this.  What do you think is the best way to tell kids that intelligence is malleable?


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