Are Intelligence and Achievement Contagious?

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The Most Critical, Must-Have Attitude You Can Possibly Have Starting a New School Year Is…

Every year, hundreds (or is it 1,000s?) of new books flood the educational marketplace. There’s no way on earth that you or I can keep up with the flood. But if you were to narrow down the list of critical things that every educator should keep at or near the top of their list, what would you put on the list?

Here is a list of the usual: be rigorous (assign challenging content), assess often (formative assessment is big these days), use inclusion more (it’s more politically correct and it saves money), and be sure to differentiate (flash news bulletin: kids are unique), plus a dozen others.

Are ALL of those a good idea?

In some ways, yes. But if your list got narrowed further and further to just the top three or four items, what would you put on the list for the upcoming school year? I know what I would insist that everyone on your staff keep in the top 5. In fact, I would be relentless about it until it was heavily embedded in every class, every day.

What are these top 5 “must do” items?

We all accept the reality that colds and the flu are contagious. We think that since there are often airborne particles or hand and face transferred germs involved, we can “catch” something from others. But could your students “catch” achievement? It sounds far-fetched, but is it?

New science is telling us that the culture at your school may be more important than you think. I’m going to make a case for a new list of top 5 items to be on your list: start the new year with a “malleable brain” or “growth mindset.”

Why? Traditionally, we have believed that the individual differences we see among our kids are just that; differences that “reside” inside our kids. But new evidence suggests that we might be thinking a bit too small.

A recent cluster of “attitude” and belief studies explore the consequences of organization-level (think “whole school”) transfer of intelligence. Collectively, the studies tell us the following:

  1. Organizations (like schools) exude a number of values to its own members, as well as to the public. Remember how Disney treats its customers as “guests” and the staff as “cast members.” This experience shifts the way employees ought to think about how they relate to customers. At your school, what is the accepted “label” and “identity” of your staff? Do you all “teach” or are you “change agents”? There’s a BIG difference. Teachers focus on teaching content and change agents focus on changing lives through building skills and new attitudes.
  2. We systematically shift our level of self-presentation (display of “smarts” to others) when we join an organization. This means that kids will “present” themselves as “higher” at a school which asserts itself as a “top level”, than they would at a school which exudes a “struggling school” mentality. What is your school’s mentality?
  3. These personal shifts are inferences for participants’ behavior and ultimately, their self-concepts. The studies show that the effects of an organization’s “vibe” are not due to a simple priming effect, and that environments shape cognition and behavior. Your students will grow, stay the same or fall back after this upcoming school year.
  4. School kids theories of their own intelligence (whether they believe it is fixed or flexible) are critical to their failure or success. Their personal theory will influence their own tendency to either give up or persevere in the face of failure. A flexible theory says, “I might fail today, but I can be better tomorrow.” This belief is often transferred by the prevailing school culture to individuals. But, that alone isn’t everything. Their belief is either strengthened or weakened by the student’s perception of how it will affect ‘my’ status. In other words, if kids think they’ll LOSE status when they do better academically, it weakens their interest in developing a growth mindset. Each of these works together.
  5. Often, educators use words like “smart students” or “slower students.” These terms alter the child’s mindset in negative ways. If you’re “smart” then, in theory, you don’t need to put out much effort. If you’re supposedly “slow” then you’re not going very far, so no need to put out much effort. In fact, researchers have demonstrated that children with disabilities are LESS likely than other children to hold a mindset of upward possibilities in their intellectual abilities. This is scary because the lower a child’s IQ, the more “upside gain” is possible.

But does all this theory work? You bet!

In study after study (citations below) students with a growth mindset, even in mathematics, did better than the control group who were NOT given the positive growth mindset. In other words, if you change the culture at school, both across the board and in students (1 at a time), you’ll get better results, even if your instruction never changes! Add new instructional changes (like more engagement) and you can expect miracles this coming year!

Let’s “flesh out” what we learned from the studies above.

  1. Change your staff’s identity from that of “employees” or “teachers” to a role that better reflects what you are trying to do this coming year. Are you agents that transfer information, ‘miracle workers’, ‘change agents’, or ___?
  2. Focus on the highest aim for your students, not the lowest. School-wide, what is your “niche” or role in society? Do you engage students in a rigorous curriculum by first building the skills and attitudes that the kids need to succeed, or do you lower your sights because your kids are “not college material”? By the way, most kids can be prepped for college, but not all should go. Some are better served in a technical, vocational or specific job training path.
  3. Focus on building the skills and attitudes that kids need to succeed. The top two attitudes are: 1) Growth: “I can learn, grow and improve myself”, and 2) Hope: “I am optimistic about my future.” The core skills are those that build “executive function”, such as memory and organizational skills.
  4. Help boost student status by rewarding (through affirmation, public notice, grades, etc.) effort and strategy, not just the final outcome. If a kid finishes something extra fast, say to him/her, “It’s kind of a shame that the assignment was so easy for you. You didn’t get to learn anything NEW. Let’s find something more challenging that will better match up with where you’re at.”
  5. Avoid labeling kids. Do not say, “Wow, you’re smart, you finished that quickly.” Instead say, “I like how your effort and strategy paid off. That was sweet.” Notice the focus on effort and strategy, not luck or genes.

Which leads us back to building the brains of your students. Let’s cut to the chase: everything you do in your classroom is likely to have SOME effect on the brain. Brain-based education says, “Be purposeful about it.” Go have some fun and make another miracle happen!

Eric Jensen

P.S. Thanks to everyone who attended our summer programs. We were sold out all summer. If you missed out this summer, the new dates and locations are already posted online for the upcoming school year and Summer 2011. You will find the schedule at

Blackwell LS, Trzesniewski KH, Dweck CS. Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: a longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Dev. 2007 Jan-Feb;78(1):246-63.

Da Fonseca D, Cury F, Bailly D, Rufo M. [Role of the implicit theories of intelligence in learning situations]. Encephale. 2004 Sep-Oct;30(5):456-63.

Mangels JA, Butterfield B, Lamb J, Good C, Dweck CS. Why do beliefs about intelligence influence learning success? A social cognitive neuroscience model. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2006 Sep;1(2):75-86.

Murphy MC, Dweck CS. A culture of genius: how an organization’s lay theory shapes people’s cognition, affect, and behavior. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2010 Mar;36(3):283-96.

Olson KR, Dunham Y, Dweck CS, Spelke ES, Banaji MR. Judgments of the lucky across development and culture. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2008 May;94(5):757-76.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Audra B

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