Thursday, April 19, 2012

Self-discipline or IQ: which matters more in school?

Being smart helps kids do well in school, but working smart matters more.  Self-discipline is the key.

The psychologist who has shown how much self-discipline matters – and by self-discipline she means delayed gratification, self-control, and study habits– is named Angela Lee Duckworth.  Last week I attended a celebration where she was honored for starting a volunteer summer school program called Breakthrough Cambridge twenty years ago.  Over that time period, over 1700 Cambridge middle students have worked hard and had fun all summer, tutored and mentored by dedicated and loving high school and college students. The older students’ devotion has helped to build the younger students’ self-discipline.  Practically all these inner-city kids go on to college, and 96% of them complete.
Duckworth’s self-discipline work focused on looking at predictors of success in school among eighth-graders.  She measured self-discipline through teacher, student, and parent questionnaires and by asking students whether they’d prefer to receive a certain amount of money now or a larger amount later. These different ways of measuring self-discipline aligned pretty well.

What Duckworth found was that her composite measure of self-discipline predicted final grades better than IQ did.  Kids in the lowest quintile, or fifth, of self-discipline ended up with worse grades than those in the lowest fifth of the IQ distribution. Kids who were the most self-disciplined ended up doing better than the one-fifth of kids with the highest IQ.

On one level, these results aren’t surprising, and Asian cultures behave as if they know this. Kids are clearly told by teachers and parents that achievement comes with effort.  American kids, on the other hand, are more likely to believe that success comes from some innate ability that isn’t affected much by how hard you try.  Of course, it’s not just trying hard but specific disciplined habits – homework before TV, studying a bit every day instead of just the night before the test, not skipping the hard parts in your problem set – that lead to better learning.

At Tumblehome Learning, we try to foster kids’ interest and success in science, and the importance of effort is one of our underlying themes.  The kid characters in Tumblehome Learning’s Galactic Academy of Science books – Mae, Clinton, Benson, and Anita – experience the rewards of effort in science.  But first they have to believe they can succeed, They have to imagine themselves as scientists.  Kid characters in our books gain that belief by traveling back in time and encountering scientists who offer them gems of advice and encouragement. 

We can’t take the kids who read our books on literal field trips to the past.  Still, we hope the books themselves serve the same purpose.  As readers identify with the kid protagonists, we hope they experience a sense of possibility, adventure, and encouragement. We believe stories can inspire kids to dream big and work hard.

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