Monday, December 5, 2011

Teaching Kids to Persevere

Hands of Struggle (image from Flickr, by mopics80)
One of the most frustrating aspects of teaching is when students give up or won’t try when the lessons get difficult. Unwillingness to take risks, try different approaches, or simply persevere with a tough problem may stem from fear, low self-efficacy or self-confidence, or misperceptions about intelligence.

A new study, however, suggests that perseverance can be cultivated in students without making any significant changes to the curriculum. The trick is to change students’ perceptions about intelligence by teaching them that it is malleable and not predetermined by genetics. This can be done by emphasizing the struggles of the historical figures they are studying. In science, for example, Newton, Einstein, Darwin, Curie were not simply raw geniuses who made their discoveries effortlessly. They each had to work hard to develop their theories and understand the phenomena they studied. They also made mistakes, struggled and had to overcome adversities.

In the study, 271 high school students were randomly assigned to 1 of 3 similar lessons. In the first group (n = 90), students were presented with stories about 3 physicists and their struggles to develop their theories. In the second group (n = 88), students simply learned about these 3 scientists’ accomplishments. The third group (n = 93) was the control group in which students just learned the physics content.

The researchers assessed students’ perceptions of scientists, interest in the physics lessons, recall of science concepts, and their ability to solve physics problems. They found that students exposed to the struggle-oriented background information had an elevated interest in science, increased recall of the key concepts and increased ability to solve complex physics problems compared with the control group and the students who only learned about the scientists’ accomplishments.


  1. This is interesting. I teach an elective philosophy class where we discuss Karl Popper sometimes. The approach outlined in this article is exactly the type of thing Popper said about science.

    We tend to teach science as a closed system where every theory and equation fits together. It comes sealed in a vacuum and the students are exhorted to memorize it all. How much different would our perception of science be if we taught it as a series of struggles and missteps that are constantly being corrected, elaborated upon, etc.

    I guess really teaching the history of science is a good way to teach science as a subject.

  2. One problem is the obsession with content standards. This was a problem even before NCLB, but has only grown worse as a result. Trying to shove so many standards down kids' throats doesn 't leave time for much critical thinking, science history or scientific process.