The social-cognitive approach: As a student, are you learning or
According to Dweck (1986) and other researchers, there are two
basic types of students: (a) learning oriented --those wanting to
learn and gain competence and (b) image oriented --those wanting
to look smart and/or avoid looking dumb. We all want to build our self-
esteem but we try to do it in different ways. While over-simplified,
there are clusters of findings crudely associated with these two types.
Understanding these types may help the schools help students and
each student self-help.
Learning oriented students see intelligence as changeable ("I can
learn to learn this stuff" or "I can get smarter"). They enjoy learning,
often fascinated with special topics, such as dinosaurs, geography,
some phase of history, politics, women's rights, pollution, nutrition,
etc. They see low grades as due to a lack of effort or a poor strategy,
which they can change. Pride is based on amount of effort they put in,
not on looking smart. They work hard. Being unchallenged is boring
and offers no chance to test or prove themselves. Thus, even if they
don't feel they are real bright, they will take on tough, challenging
intellectual tasks, risking failing on an assignment. More boys take this
attitude than girls.
Image oriented students see intelligence as permanently fixed.
They consider it very important that others see them as smart or, at
least, not stupid or naive. Since doing well is assumed to be due to
brains and not effort, there isn't much need to work hard. In fact, if a
person has to work hard to learn something, that suggests they aren't
very smart. And, if you do poorly, there isn't anything you can do
about it. You were born that way. Naturally, such a person would avoid
difficult challenges if doing poorly seemed likely (especially true of
bright girls or women). They tend to be less curious, less interested in
new ideas and in learning about themselves. Their pride is based on
good impression management, not on honest, careful estimates of
their ability. They avoid testing their limits. Thus, the student's level of
confidence is shaky--one low quiz score, one criticism of them, one
foolish statement by them raises their own doubts about their
intelligence. Even high achievers fall into this trap; their worry about
their image reduces the intrinsic satisfaction they get out of learning.
Schools have recently attempted to build students' self-esteem,
sacrificing perhaps the acquisition of knowledge. Three popular
principles guide many teachers: give lots of positive reinforcement,
expect students to do well (self-fulfilling prophesy), and build the
students' self-esteem. All sound commendable. All may be harmful in
certain circumstances. Examples: Expecting and rewarding success on
easy assignments does not encourage a student to tackle hard tasks.
Being "successful" on easy tasks doesn't build self-confidence, it
makes students feel dumber. Children know their limits aren't being
tested. Students are being misled if they are subtly taught that it is
easy to succeed as a student. That's a lie. It's deceptive because you