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Bend it just a little bit

Children who believe their abilities are fixed do less well than those who have a can-do attitude, says Oliver James . And inspiring teachers don't play to past performance

In among the warp and woof of factors deciding which pupils do well and badly, you would not think that the way they conceive of their abilities would feature much. "As any fule kno", performance basically boils down to having parents who are poor, ill-educated and maltreating, or their opposites. Right?

Believe it or not, a crucial, so far ill-considered determinant is whether the children themselves think their intelligence is fixed (by genes or background) or changeable. Indeed, it has now been shown that just four lessons devoted to cultivating a malleable, "I am what I choose" mindset (not to be confused with that overrated "science", positive psychology), significantly improves performance.

A 1990 study showed that first-year secondary pupils who took a malleable view of their abilities got significantly higher grades than ones who believed they were fixed. This was true even after allowing for the predictive power of prior academic performance.

Tipped off by this finding, two studies (of teens and undergraduates) put it into practice. They taught samples of young people to think of themselves as having malleable rather than fixed ability. Compared with groups given no such tuition, the malleable got significantly better grades as a result of the tuition, regardless of their prior test scores.

What was needed was more detail of how this works: are kids who see themselves as changeable made optimistic by this belief, or are they already cleverer tryers? And would it work with all kinds of children, even that notorious thicko at the back of your class? Cue two studies putting theoretical flesh on the bones.

The first looked at 373 children aged 13, following them over a two-year period. To measure the malleabilityfixity of their beliefs, they were asked how much they agreed or disagreed with statements like: "You have a certain amount of intelligence, and you really can't do much to change it", or "You can always greatly change how intelligent you are". Then they were tested on motivation: attitude to learning (eg "I do school work best when it makes me think hard"), confidence that effort brings results ("If you're not good at a subject, working hard won't make you good at it"), and when faced with failure, tendencies towards helpless or positive reactions.

Sure enough, during the two years of the study, children who subscribed to malleable beliefs steadily improved in their maths performance. The malleable were more successful than the fixed because they liked being made to think, redoubled efforts if not succeeding and did not feel helpless. But which came first, the try-hard motive or the malleable belief?

This time, 91 13-year-olds, mostly from low-income homes and doing badly at maths, were followed over a year. Half of them were given four lessons in malleability, the others were taught about other matters during those hours.

As before, the intervention group became more likely to subscribe to malleable beliefs as a result of the teaching and the average maths score of that group rose, whereas the control group continued to do badly. The greatest improvement over the year was found in the children who had started with a fixed view of their ability and had been taught to think of it as malleable: fixity is bad for performance. But above all, the sequence was clear: change the belief, you change the motivation, and that improves the grades.

The implications seem considerable: set aside four lessons for teaching the malleability of talents. But more than this, it is important that both you and the parents of your pupils also develop a malleable view. Studies of teachers with fixed views show that they are more likely to let their expectations of pupils' performance affect how they treat them. As for parents, a recent study shows clearly that mothers need to avoid fixed ideas. If they had a negative view of the child's capacities, a year later their offspring were the most likely to have done badly. True, offspring of fixed parents with high expectations did well, but if the child faltered, there could be trouble.

It would seem to be of considerable importance that not only pupils are taught malleable beliefs, but parents and teachers too. As the evidence grows for this, the case for a national programme to teach all three groups is emerging. But in the meantime, apply what you've read here and you have a distinct advantage over those foolish enough to have turned to the next page

Oliver James is a child clinical psychologist and author of Affluenza How to be successful and stay sane and They F*** You Up How to survive family life


The 1990 study: Henderson, V.L. et al, 1990, in Feldman, S. and Elliott, G., At the threshold: The developing adolescent, Harvard University Press.

Two studies of teens and students: Good, C. et al, 2003, Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 24, 645-62.

Cue two studies: Blackwell, L.S. et al, 2007, Child Development, 78, 246-63.

Studies of teachers: eg Lee, K., 1996, Journal of Classroom Interaction, 31, 1-12.

Recent study of parents: Pomerantz, E.M., 2006, Developmental Psychology, 42, 950-61.

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