RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And now to kids and belief. A new study in the scientific journal Child Development shows that if you teach students that their intelligence can grow and increase, then they do better in school.
Michelle Trudeau reports.
MICHELLE TRUDEAU: All children develop a belief about their own intelligence, says research psychologist Carol Dweck from Stanford University.
Ms. CAROL DWECK (Research Psychologist, Stanford University): Some students start thinking of their intelligence as something fixed, it's carved in stone. They worry about, do I have enough, don't I have enough?
TRUDEAU: Dweck calls this a fixed mindset of intelligence.
Ms. DWECK: Other children think intelligence is something you can develop your whole life. You can learn. You can stretch. You can keep mastering new things.
TRUDEAU: She calls this a growth mindset of intelligence.
Dweck wondered if a child's belief about intelligence has anything to do with academic success. So first she looked at several hundred students going into seventh grade, and assessed which students believed their intelligence was unchangeable and which children believed their intelligence could grow. Then she looked at their math grades over the next two years.
Ms. DWECK: We saw among those with the growth mindset steadily increasing math grades over the two years. Not so for those with the fixed mindset. They showed a decrease in their math grades.
TRUDEAU: This led Dweck and her colleague, Lisa Blackwell from Columbia University, to ask another question.
Ms. DWECK: If we gave students a growth mindset, if we taught them how to think about their intelligence, would that benefit their grades?
TRUDEAU: So about 100 seventh graders, all doing poorly in math, were randomly assigned to workshops on good study skills. One got lessons on how to study well. The other was taught about the expanding nature of intelligence and the brain.
Ms. DWECK: They learned that the brain actually forms new connections every time you learn something new and that over time this makes you smarter.
TRUDEAU: Basically, a mini-neuroscience course on how the brain works. By the end of the semester, the group of kids who had been taught that intelligence can grow got significantly higher math grades.
Ms. DWECK: When they studied, they thought about those neurons forming new connections. When they worked hard in school, they actually visualized how their brain was growing.
TRUDEAU: Here's how the kids themselves described it.
Unidentified Child #1: Your brain does change, of course, just like your personality does. When you're a baby, you can do your own private things, and when you get older, it's like speaking your mind.
Unidentified Child #2: I think that when babies are born, when they grow like the rest of their mind, it expands and they're able to learn new things.
Unidentified Child #3: (Unintelligible) my brain was expanding and I think that I was collecting all these things. (Unintelligible) that it just put it into my storage and started to expand it. So to expand it, by now it's almost - it's still expanding but it's now to that point where I can do those things.
Unidentified Child #4: When I was little, I know I wasn't using my brain that much because I was just getting to see the world. Where I'm at now, I'm in like a whole advanced level. Because I was in elementary, now I'm in junior high. I learned advanced stuff.
TRUDEAU: Carol Dweck says this new mindset changed the kids' attitude toward learning and their willingness to put forth effort. Duke University psychologist Steven Asher agrees. Teaching children that they're in charge of their own intellectual growth motivates a child to work hard, he says.
Prof. STEVEN ASHER (Psychology, Duke University): If you think about a child who's coping with an especially challenging task, I don't think there's anything better in the world than that child hearing from a parent or from a teacher the words, you'll get there, you'll get there. And that I think is the spirit of what this is about.
TRUDEAU: Carol Dweck's latest book, "Mindset," gives parents and teachers specific ways to teach the growth mindset of intelligence.
For NPR News, I'm Michelle Trudeau.