How to Make Your Children Smarter: Entity VS Incremental Learning

Children tend to view their intelligence in one of two ways:

Entity Learners: “I am smart at this”

“Entity” learners believe in a fixed level of intelligence: I.e.: “I am good at math; I am bad at english”.

They believe they have a fixed level of ability and there is very little they can do to change their results.  Since success or failure implies “smart” or “not-smart”, they will tend to avoid risk of failure.

Incremental Learners: “I tried hard at this”

“Incremental” learners believe their level of intelligence is flexible and influenced by hard work. “I got it because I worked very hard at it” or “I should have tried harder”.

The learning is more important than the results. Step by step they can move from novice to master. When faced with failure, they increase their efforts or change their tactics.

Winning and Losing

Winning is still important. It is still very important. But learning is more important than winning or losing.

It would be easy to read about the studies on entity vs incremental theories of intelligence and come to the conclusion that a child should never win or lose. I don’t believe this is the case. If that child discovers any ambition to pursue excellence in a given field later in life, he or she may lack the toughness to handle inevitable obstacles. While a fixation on results is certainly unhealthy, short term goals can be useful development tools if they are balanced within a nurturing long-term philosophy. Too much sheltering from results can be stunting.
— Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning

Assume your child is playing high-school level soccer. Which is better? Winning against a kindergarden team or losing a close match against a university team? I would argue that playing against the stronger team (win or lose) will have much better long term benefits than winning against the kindergarden team. If you never lose then you are not challenging yourself enough.

If your child experiences a crushing defeat, don’t patronize them by saying that “it doesn’t matter if you win or lose”. Your child is feeling strong emotions that clearly matter to him. Your words will not resonate with his reality.  Instead acknowledge those feelings and focus on the learning: “I know you put a lot of effort into this and you wanted to win very badly. Not winning hurts a lot sometimes, but it can also help you get better.  Let’s learn from this — let’s train harder and get better for the next match. The best way to get better is to face strong opponents, and when you face strong opponents you will lose sometimes. But you will get better. And the better you get, the more you will win.”

I have seen many people in diverse fields take some version of the (incremental learning) philosophy and transform it into an excuse for never putting themselves on the line or pretending not to care about results. They claim to be egoless, to care only about learning, but really this is an excuse to avoid confronting themselves.
— Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning

What Parents or Teachers can do

The language used by parents or teachers play a big role in a child’s view of their intelligence.

Language such as “You are really good at math, but bad at English” will tend to reinforce that intelligence is a fixed and unchangeable. Children will learn that they are good at math and bad at English. They will link their success and failure  to a predefined fixed level of ability. There is nothing they can do about it, so they will not try to get better.

Focus on the learning. Re-enforce that they can change their results with effort: “You are really doing good in math: Keep up the good work! You are struggling in english: Let’s study a little harder!”.

It is never too late

It is clear that parents and teachers have an enormous responsibility in forming theories of intelligence of their students and children — and it is never too late. It is critical to realize that we can always evolve in our approaches to learning. Studies have shown that in just minutes, kids can be conditioned into having a healthy learning theory for a given situation.
— Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning


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