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We have stated that teacher tenacity and quality feedback are skill sets that move students toward believing in themselves. The implication is we wouldn’t take the trouble to act in these ways (be tenacious and give useful feedback) if we didn’t believe in our students and want them to succeed. But for low- performing, low-confidence students much more is needed. They don’t think they “have it.” That is, they don’t think they’re smart enough or have ability in a particular academic area. Thus they don’t put forth sufficient effort for mastery. You may hear them say, “It’s too hard,” “I can’t do it,” or “Nobody in my family can either.”

This section takes on the all-important constellation of teaching skills that en- ables us to get students to change their minds about their ability and to be will- ing to learn how to exert effective effort on their own behalf. This implies our own conviction that all students can achieve well in school. We have to perceive them all as having sufficient ability to do so and have confidence in our own capacity to meet students where they are now and move them incrementally toward meeting those standards. Both of these conditions can be seriously af- fected by the theories that we hold about people and their capacity to grow and develop.

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How do our beliefs about “ability” influence our behavior, the messages we send to students about their intellectual capacity, and our effectiveness in com- municating high expectations to all students? How do students’ beliefs about ability influence their motivation to work hard and their confidence that they can achieve at high levels? We explore two theories about innate ability and its relationship to performance and achievement. As you read, consider which of these theories dominated the environment in which you spent your formative years and how each of these theories plays out in your teaching.

The Bell Curve of Innate Ability

The innate ability theory about achievement and development is best represented by the bell curve as an uneven distribution of intellectual ability in human be- ings (Figure 14.3). Carol Dweck (2008) has popularized the term “fixed mind- set” to represent this view of ability. Embedded in this theory are the following assumptions:

p Intellectual ability is a “thing,” a unitary entity that is real.

p Intellectual ability is innate; that is, it comes with us as a package at birth.



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p The amount of intellectual ability we are given at birth remains relatively fixed or stable throughout our lifetime. It doesn’t vary much as we proceed through our lives, and we can’t change or affect it much.

p Innate ability is unequally distributed; some of us are born with more of it than others.

p Intellectual ability determines how far a person can go and how well he or she can do, especially at academic material.

p Intellectual ability is measurable. We can test to tell how much of it a stu- dent has and arrange for each student to be in the right kind of educational environment for his or her abilities.

Most of us were raised in an environment that reinforced this theory and set of assumptions, and we bought into those assumptions as if they were fact. This is not a statement of blame. It’s a statement about the air we breathe in a society where this belief is played out more strongly than anywhere else in the world. These are undiscussed assumptions that dominated our country and our schools throughout the 20th century and still have pervasive influence. Our contention is that these assumptions are wrong. For a history of the con- cept of “intelligence” as it developed in the United States and evidence that it is malleable, see “Debunking the Myth of the Bell Curve” in High Expectations Teaching (Saphier, 2017). An abbreviated version of this history of the idea of

Videos: Debunking the Myth of the Bell Curve (1 & 2)

55 70 85 100 115 130 145






34.1% 34.1%

Figure 14.3 The Bell Curve



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“intelligence” and how it got so deeply embedded in American culture and school design is available on The Skillful Teacher website (www.RBTeach.com/TST7).

The effort-based theory (see Figure 14.4) posits that all children are born with sufficient innate ability to achieve anything asked of them in school, and that this ability (in fact, intelligence itself ) is malleable through effective effort. Whether a student does achieve and develop (get smarter) is not a matter of having the raw material or ability, but rather believing he or she has what it takes (confidence) and investing effort effectively (working hard and acquiring knowledge and strategies for working smart). Another way of summarizing this theory is that “Smart is not something you are; smart is something you get (incrementally) by working hard and working smart” (Jeff Howard, The Efficacy Institute).

Indeed, all teachers see differences in children every day in their classrooms, sometimes big differences in readiness to learn, in speed of learning, in motiva- tion, and current academic performance. Some students are way behind the oth- ers. But unlike a fixed mindset or entity theorist, where the differences would be explained away as how much intelligence or innate ability one is endowed with, a person with a growth mindset or an incrementalist believes that all children have the intellectual capacity to eventually meet proficiency standards. It is not a limited brain that is holding them back, but any number of other variables, all of which can potentially be modified, accommodated, or influenced in some way.

Figure 14.4 Effective Effort

Adapted from Jeff Howard, Efficacy Institute, Waltham, Massachusetts.


Hard Work








History of the Idea of “Intelligence” in the United States



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When confronted with differences in children’s development or performance, those who hold to this theory interpret the disparity as a function of disadvan- tages (or lack of opportunities) that have created obstacles to their development and learning. This might include limited experiences, absence of mediation or intervention, conflict of values related to school achievement, low self-esteem, mismatch in learning-teaching style, and a myriad of other possible causes, none of which is internally hard-wired in a person, and all of which may be subject to change under the right circumstances. Students clearly have different aptitudes (a natural talent or ability for something), but they all have enough to attain proficiency in literacy and numeracy at rigorous standards. Two assump- tions are embedded in this theory:

1. There is no way of telling from children’s attitudes, speech, cleanliness, clothing, record of past performance, and current performance what they are capable of learning and achieving if given time, motivation, and in- struction that reaches out to meet their needs.

2. Differences of color and culture have nothing to do with the capacities of children’s brains.

Whereas the innate theory is deterministic, the incrementalist theory—or effort-based ability—is optimistic. Incrementalists engage in an ongoing quest to discover what will enable students to turn on and take off.

Attribution Theory

Both explanations for achievement and development have been explored historically as part of a body of research referred to as “attribution theory” (Dweck, 1999, 2002; Nicholls, 1978; Weiner, 1996). Attribution theory is con- cerned with the explanations we give ourselves when we succeed for why we succeeded, and when we fail for why we have failed. The research suggests that the explanations we give ourselves about the causes of our successes and fail- ures (attributions) are based on our perceptions, and those perceptions and explanations ultimately influence our self-concept about our ability. They also influence our expectations for future situations, feelings of power and efficacy, and subsequent motivation to put forth effort. Weiner found four basic reasons to which individuals might attribute their success or lack thereof: ability, task difficulty, luck, and effort. Weiner arranges them in the grid shown in Figure 14.5. According to Weiner, successful, confident people attribute their success to internal factors (having the ability and exerting effort) and lack of success to the internal factor they control and can most readily influence (effort). Un- successful, low-confidence people tend to attribute success to external factors (task difficulty: “Must have been an easy test,” and luck: “I guess I just luckily



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studied the right chapters!”) and lack of success to external factors (again, luck or task difficulty, those over which they have no control) with a secret inner fear that they really just don’t have enough ability.

Young children believe success comes from effort; in fact, effort and ability are synonymous to them (Nicholls & Burton, 1982). But as they get older, some children start attributing academic success more and more to innate ability rather than effort. This creates a bind, because for such children the only pos- sible conclusion if they are not doing well is that they must be dumb. Thus many low-performing students opt out of school and quit trying by middle school because it’s better to be considered lazy (or not care) than dumb.

Dweck (1999) found that children (and adults) tend to be either entity theorists about intelligence and achievement or incrementalists. Entity theorists believe that intelligence is a thing—an entity that is fixed and responsible for any suc- cess. Conversely, having low intelligence results in poor academic performance.

Ability Task


Effort Luck

Internal External

Constant (Stable)

Variable (Unstable)

Figure 14.5 Attribution Theory

Adapted from Weiner, 1974.



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Entity theorists take every assignment, every test, every task as an evaluation of their innate ability in a direct, causative way. These students form what Dweck calls a “performance goal orientation” toward academic work. Low perfor- mance (errors) indicates low ability. High performance indicates high ability. “I only like to do the things I already do well,” says a girl who is an entity theorist. Incrementalists believe that ability is built incrementally through effort and use of feedback from the environment. They form a “learning goal orientation,” according to Dweck, where their goal is to learn something new rather than to prove themselves able, as is the goal of an entity theorist.

The consequences of these two internal theories of intelligence and the goal orientations that go with them are huge. Imagine the pressure a student feels who is constantly on trial, who experiences every academic challenge as a measure of self on a dimension so highly prized in our society: intelligence. Not all students (or adults) are at the poles of the entity versus incrementalist continuum, but large numbers are. The closer students are to the entity pole, the harder it is to mobilize energy and strategies when experiencing difficulty. Instead, they tend to interpret difficulty as a measure of limited ability and frequently give up. The closer a student is to the incrementalist pole, the more likely he or she is to treat difficulty and errors as data saying that working harder or working smarter (dif- ferent strategies) is what is needed in order to overcome the difficulty.

This is why an examination of standards and expectations is so central to the work of teachers. The standards of performance teachers set, and the beliefs they hold about a child’s capacity to meet those standards play a vital role in the messages sent to students and ultimately in what students are likely to achieve. So just how do these come together and play out in our classrooms? Let’s now examine how we might be influenced by our own attributions about students.

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