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Beyond the Limits of Intelligence: Children’s Unlimited Potential in Deliberate Practice

Beyond the Limits of Intelligence: Children’s Unlimited Potential in Deliberate Practice

Note: The Institute’s guest commentator, Dr. Darnell Lattal, recently assumed the role of Executive Director of the Aubrey Daniels Institute. She was trained as a clinical psychologist, and for many years was President of Aubrey Daniels International.

Child psychologist Carol S. Dweck’s research over many years demonstrates that the unlimited source of a child’s learning potential is in the environment, not innate qualities conveyed by a term like intelligence.  Reinforce consistent and persistent effort and the child will master her environment.  Children shouldn’t be constrained about their potential by assumed biological limitations embedded in labels like smart or dumb.

Her premise is that these terms are not psychological states, but rather are labels that cause neither success nor failure.  Some children are taught that they do as they do because they are, innately, “smart” or “dumb.” Other, more fortunate, children are taught that it is their behavior (what they say or do) that leads others to label them smart or dumb. To distill the message down to a simple one, Dweck’s research shows that children who are told they are smart or dumb are less likely to succeed on tasks than are children who are told nothing about themselves, but are taught to master tasks. 

If the child is encouraged by those around her to describe her behavior of persistent practice as the important element in her success, not attributing it to her "innate intelligence," she is provided a most important problem solving tool to use throughout life. If the tasks and situations are designed to maximize learning, we can imagine a classroom rich with reinforcement for effort, for trying and then trying again until success occurs. This is the whole point of that tried and true behavioral principle called shaping. Achieving the final target is good but it is the journey (small and persistent steps toward the goal) the really matters, and the child learns how to learn for a lifetime.

With hard work, persistence, repeated trials and small steps, reveling in errors and correction, the children in Dr. Dweck’s research describe their practice patterns as what learning is about.  What the child does in the environment is where learning occurs.  We can know and measure the acquisition of observable skills, persistently applied correctly over time. We can measure response strength and generalize across learning events by what children say and do.  Children need never be burdened with the notion that an internal “thing” (a mind or a brain supplying a genetically-determined and thus genetically-limited quantity of intelligence) well beyond their control is actually in charge of their academic success.

To help our children achieve we must begin by understanding that smart is defined in what a child is taught in regard to persistence, trying again, perhaps failing again, but encouraged through careful shaping to learn tasks to mastery

In one example offered by Dr. Dweck, a young boy, finally understanding that his actions, repeated practice, determine what he can achieve when it comes to learning, looked up and said, “You mean I don’t have to be dumb anymore?” Although Dr. Dweck and I may disagree on some underlying conceptual issues, she and I agree completely that we all need to throw away the notion that the secret to what a child can achieve is defined by imagined intelligence—a fixed and elitist concept of old.  Look rather at behavior, the beautiful shapeable expression of a child’s true potential.          







Posted by Andy Lattal

Dr. Andy Lattal is the Centennial Professor of Psychology at West Virginia University (WVU). Lattal has authored over 150 research articles and chapters on conceptual, experimental, and applied topics in behavior analysis and edited seven books and journal special issues, including APA’s memorial tribute to B. F. Skinner.