The Dynamics of a Successful Student: Hard work, Smart Work, Natural Ability and Human Flourishing

Determining the recipe for success is no easy problem. Formulaic answers will most likely be superficial but it does help to break down the question in terms of the how, why and what.

Success is perplexing. In a culture that is obsessed with material success we sometimes puzzle over Pope Benedict XVI’s often-repeated reminder that “success is not one of the names of God.” Of course the Pope was speaking about the dynamic of evangelism and the fact that our Lord demonstrates total surrender as the path to ultimate victory. So how does this relate to our vocations out in the world? We ought to at least get a sense that real success alludes the superficial. There are no simple steps to guarantee success. It requires a comprehensive view.

Business executives certainly spend a good deal of energy thinking through the dynamics of corporate success. It is rare for a business to achieve long-term stability where leadership lacks clarity of focus. Neither is success maintained simply in terms of measuring profitability. Jim Collin’s long running best sellers “Built to Last”, “Good to Great” and “How the Mighty Fall,” demonstrate that organizations must consider success in terms of execution, leadership objectives and organizational structures. Success is always understood in comprehensive terms by determining the how, why and what dynamics.

All Parents are Success Researchers
While we may not realize it because it is often inadvertent, parents also spend a great deal of time “researching” the question of success. It may not feel like analysis but this “research” is simply the inquiry that parents take up as they work towards the growth and development of their children. A large part of this task falls squarely on the questions of their education:
“How, why and what is my student learning (or not)?”
“What in the world is up with my kid…(or his teacher)???”
The job of parenting requires persistent thoughtfulness. It might feel like we run the risk of constantly second-guessing our kids, their peers, their teachers and ourselves. Sometimes this is the case but sometimes this is simply what it takes to be thoughtfully diligent to the task of raising young people. Raising children has always been a challenge. The good news is that this perseverance with our children is itself a modeling of healthy growth and an example of what it takes to be successful.

“Smart-Kid” Research
Obviously the criteria for success in raising children are not the same as the criteria for corporate success. However if empirical analysis is helpful in developing our focus as professionals it might also by worthwhile to review the data to gain some insights on thinking through the success of educating our children. This leads me the work of Stanford Professor Carol Dweck whose research has focused on the question of academic success from grade school to graduate school. She summarizes her 35-year career in a 2015 article published in Scientific American. I highly recommend taking the time to read the article (linked here) but it is a bit long so the busy and time pressed parent might watch her condensed eight minute TED Talk (available here) instead. The title of the TED Talk is a bit misleading (do not be turned off if at first it seems like a superficial pitch for the “power of positive thinking”). While it is brief, it is substantial.

Dweck articulates the succinct focus of her life’s work and study as coming to the following question: “Why do some students give up when they encounter difficulty, whereas others who are no more skilled [or even less skilled] continue to strive and learn?” In other words, does the “smart kid” happen through effort or innate talent and natural ability?

Clearly, natural ability is a gift, but according to Dweck’s research it doesn’t seem to be the primary indicator of real academic success. In fact, her studies seem to demonstrate that the opposite is true! It may be a bit of an overreach to claim that being smart is a hindrance to success. However it can often be the case that early success is dangerous because it often comes prior to having developed a mature view of one’s ability. The challenge is in understanding what intelligence is and how it is obtained. Dweck is explicit in rejecting the “smart kid” label. She actually warns that people who have been affirmed by praise, personal experience and/or environmental reinforcement that emphasizes their natural abilities, (particularly intelligence) develop what she refers to as a “belief in fixed intelligence.” Her investigation consistently shows that a superficial read that “emphasizes intellect or talent leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unwilling to remedy their shortcomings.” The variable seems to hinge on the question of intelligence as static or dynamic.

The Metrics of “Mastery-minded” Education
Dweck is big on the language of “mind-set.” The idea of “fixed-intelligence is counter-productive to developing what she refers to as a “growth mindset.” This is an important distinction that sets her apart from “positive thinking” therapy. For her, the mind is a muscle and it needs to be worked in order to arrive at intelligence. At The Summit we talk a great deal about educating towards mastery. In a similar vein Dweck reinforces the benefits of forming “mastery-minded” students. This actually seems more “human.” People do not simply process or record information. That is what machines do. Human learning is much more organic which makes sense because after all, we are organisms. We know that muscles develop, appetites are formed and people grow towards maturity not only physically but also spiritually, emotionally and intellectually. However, the empirical research bears this out as well (for those that like a little more “hard data”).

Dweck presents the results from multiple studies in which the objective was specific to understanding the correlation of mindset and grades. The research consistently demonstrated that students who possessed an understanding of intelligence as hard and fixed experienced lower grades. Conversely, the students who understood intelligence as something that is developed and that must be worked towards experienced higher grades. Put in basic terms, where the focus was in looking smart or already being smart, intelligence seemed evasive. For students whose focus was in developing knowledge intelligence seemed evident. This dynamic remained consistent across a broad range of academic environments from junior high, secondary school and at the college level. The results also cohered across a diverse set of institutions ranging from under-performing urban elementary schools to pre-med classes at Columbia University.

Hard Work Beats Talent? Not Exactly.
Dweck emphasizes persistence as a key to academic thriving. However, she doesn’t see persistence as simply the brute force application of constant cramming that results in the perpetually stressed out over-worked student. Success is not a simply a matter of talent alone and neither is it a matter of effort alone. Dweck alludes to a winning trifecta consisting of effort, persistence and effective learning strategies. All three are vital. The formula is not an either/or but a both/and. In a future “forum” I plan to discuss the innovative work of Georgetown Professor Cal Newport and his emphasis on mastery focused learning strategies as “deep work.” For the over-eager reader I would recommend Newport’s presentation at the Texas Region of Phi Theta Kappa here. Learning strategies address the “how” dynamic of success. The “why” and what” dynamics are a bit more difficult to pin down.

The “growth mindset” is not simply focused on hard labor. We emphasize the value of the sweat equity that students earn (particularly in disciplines like Latin and Math). However knowledge is not merely crammed so much as it is ingested. To really know something we have take it into ourselves and to allow ourselves to be changed by it. Parents know that they encounter a similar dynamic in marriage. With academics as in relationships this sort of knowledge does not happen overnight.

Real Learning Means Finding Ourselves in the Truth
It seems to be quite important that people have some correct understanding of what intelligence is in order to obtain it. Dweck presents a strong case that students who think being smart “just happens” (as in some people just simply are or are not smart) are most likely to become easily frustrated and quit. This is because they implicitly conclude that any struggle is evidence of a lack of intelligence or ability and cannot be changed. However, students that learn to think of intelligence as developed actually recognize academic struggle as the process by which “smart happens.” For these students struggle becomes an indicator of “smart happening” and a sign that intelligence is just around the corner.

One thing is clear. It must be understood that academic success is not simply a matter of intellectual “haves” and “have-nots.” As Catholics we understand that human dignity means that we are all made with a capacity, and a desire even for the truth. Human beings want to know things. As children mature they naturally want to understand things at a deeper and more comprehensive level. Teenagers resent superficial answers. They do not want a truth that is arbitrary. They want a truth that is rational and able to give evidence of itself. Catholicism is an affirmation of the unity and fullness of Truth.

Learning to succeed in academics and elsewhere in life is always a process of personal development and maturation. The student (and parent) that understands this has a significant advantage in life. Yes, students will experience learning as a struggle at times but that is precisely the point! Maturity, perseverance and intelligence are things that can always be developed. Parents, teachers and students (all of us learners) can take encouragement in the fact that learning is always a maturation process, always a development and always a movement towards the Truth. Our encounter of the Truth is not a static process. We never fully arrive as “smart students” because we can always grow.


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