Sunday, February 06, 2011

your entity theory is showing

In my post above all else, I raved about Josh Waitzkin's remarkable book The Art of Learning. I promised more posts on it, but with all I have been doing for Uranium Madhouse, I haven't gotten around to it. Now I'm getting around to it.

Before I go on, I'll mention that I have added The Art of Learning to my course syllabus, and my students are loving it as much as I did. I can't recommend it highly enough.

So one of the first important distinctions Waitzkin makes is between different theories of intelligence. We all have a theory of intelligence, that is, a picture of what our mind is and how it faces challenges. Here he is on the two types:

Children who are "entity theorists" -- that is, kids who have been influenced by their parents and teachers to think in this manner -- are prone to use language like "I am smart at this" and to attribute their success or failure to an ingrained and unalterable level of ability. They see their overall intelligence or skill level at a certain thing to be a fixed entity, a thing that cannot evolve. Incremental theorists, who have picked up a different modality of learning-- let's call them learning theorists -- are more prone to describe their results with sentences like "I got it because I worked very hard for it" or "I should have tried harder." A child with a learning theory of intelligence tends to sense that with hard work, difficult material can be grasped -- step by step, incrementally, the novice can become the master.

Waitzkin goes on to cite a study by developmental psychologists that beautifully illustrates the hold that these theories of intelligence has over the minds of learners:

a group of children was interviewed and then each child was noted as having either an entity or a learning theory of intelligence. All the children were then given a series of easy math problems, which they all solved correctly. Then, all the children were given some very hard problems to solve-- problems that were too difficult for them. It was clear that the learning theorists were excited by the challenge, while the entity theorists were dismayed. Comments would range from "Oh boy, now I'm really gonna have to try hard" to "I'm not smart enough for this." Everyone got those problems wrong-- but evidently the experience of being challenged had very different effects. What is most interesting is the third phase of this experiment: all the children were once again given easy problems to solve. Nearly all of the learning theorists breezed right through the easy material, but the entity theorists had been too dispirited by the inability to solve the hard problems that many of them foundered through the easy stuff. Their self-confidence had been destroyed.

Readers of this blog know that this is what I believe. I have said as much on more than one occasion, such as this one. So listen carefully actors: if you have ever asked anyone if you are "talented", you have an entity theory of learning to act. You think that acting ability is something innate, that you either "have" or you don't. You need to reconsider this. Learning to act really well is a long haul, I don't care who you are. It's like becoming a black belt in a martial art or an internationally competitive chess player. So you need to embrace an ethos that promotes resilience, as the rejections and the disappointments will come, to coin a phrase, not single spies, but in battalions.

So get your mind ready.

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