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Why It’s Counterproductive to Call Someone Smart

When it comes to how we learn, much of what we think we know is, in fact, wrong.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Tim Gouw/Unsplash)

It’s odd, when you think about it. Education policy is a hotly debated topic — look at the opposition to new Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos — but the conversation almost always revolves around issues of structure and authority rather than effectiveness.

Bolster public schools, or provide vouchers for private ones? Give teachers tenure, or subject them to evaluation? These are important issues, but, as Ulrich Boser points out, they largely sidestep the most fundamental issue: What’s the best way to present information so that students actually learn?

There has been much research along these lines in recent years, and Boser discusses lots of it in his just-published book Learn Better: Mastering the Skills for Success in Life, Business, and School, or, How to Become an Expert in Just About Anything. In a recent interview, he talked with Pacific Standard about some common misconceptions and surprising truths regarding teaching and learning.

Boser is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where he focuses on education. His previous books include The Leap: The Science of Trust and Why it Matters. Learn Better was named by Amazon as one of the 10 best new books published in March.

Why, for all our concerns about education, do we pay so little attention to teaching methods?

One issue is the belief that a really charismatic teacher can teach anything. This mythical teacher jumps up on tables and engages students. This undermines the fact there is a real science and craft behind how you explain complicated ideas, how you relate to students who might be struggling at home, and so many other things that are behind great teaching.

Where did this romanticized view of teachers come from?

I think some of it has to do with gender. For a long time, teaching was something women did. It was not treated as a true profession.

So how might things change if we looked at teaching methods in a more rigorous, research-driven way? Are there proven methods of learning that, for no good reason, we refuse to adopt?

We’ve known about the “spacing effect” for 200 years. You’re better off spreading out your learning over time. The more you revisit ideas over a period of time, the more that you learn. There’s no debate about this.

And yet we tend to cram before a test. We also tend to highlight words or phrases as we read, which you report is highly ineffective.

When we’re re-reading or highlighting, we’re not deeply engaging with the material. More engaging tasks, like self-explaining or quizzing oneself, are more effective.


(Photo: Courtesy of Ulrich Boser)

We think of our minds as like computers: Information comes up and then gets filed into various folders. Instead, we need to really engage with material, and discover what connections there are with what we already know. Self-quizzing can help with that, because you’re explaining things to yourself — making that information meaningful.

Let’s say you’re about to give a presentation at work. We have a natural tendency to want to re-read our notes. But you’re much better off putting away your notes and giving a practice presentation. Doing that, you’re drawing the material out of memory, which makes the memories stronger.

You conducted an online survey to discover what Americans think effective teaching looks like. How far off is conventional wisdom from proven methods?

We surveyed a representative sample of 3,000 people. We found they were overconfident in their judgment of what good teaching looks like.

You report that 71 percent approved of the notion of “motivating students by praising them for being smart.” What’s wrong with that approach?

It’s about having a “growth mindset” as opposed to a “fixed mindset” regarding intelligence. A growth mindset suggests that you can do better if you work harder. This makes kids more likely to apply themselves. When people have a fixed mindset, they become more brittle; they’re less likely to work hard when they encounter an obstacle, because they believe that, if they can’t so something, it’s because they don’t have that innate ability.

This also applies to believing you do or do not have an innate singing ability, or an innate drawing ability. It becomes very binary: You try something, you fail, and that means you don’t have it. Now, a lot of schools promote a growth mindset, at least on a superficial level. At my third grader’s school, I see things along the lines of “The brain is a muscle — the more you use it, the stronger you get” on posters. But it’s easy to slip into a fixed mindset.

Many of us also have this idea that we need to master one subject, or one subset of a topic, before moving on to another. But you report the research shows mixing things up is far more effective.

This is the idea of “interleaving.” I use the example of basketball training. People tend to practice foul shots on Day One, three-pointers on Day Two, and jumpers on Day Three. But you’re better off mixing it up each day. This research goes back to the 1970s in terms of basketball, but since then we’ve seen evidence that it works with high-level math skills and a number of other fields. I’m surprised that hasn’t taken off more.

So are you attempting to apply some of these ideas with your own children?

Yes. I’m trying to push for more homework on the weekend, because she will forget less if the learning is spaced out. That does not make me a popular father. My stock has definitely gone down at home.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.