"Nothing can stand before the ratzon (will)," is a saying our children (or at least our sons) are likely to hear many times in the course of their education. That piece of wisdom is neither rabbinic in origin nor is it literally true. Yet a number of recent studies in educational psychology demonstrate that it contains a crucial educational message.
A February 14 piece in New York Magazine, "How Not to Talk to Your Kids" by Po Bronson, describes the work of Stanford professor Carol Dweck, who has spent the last ten years investigating the impact of different educational messages on children. Dweck and her colleague Lisa Blackwell tried various educational interventions with 700 low-achieving minority students. Each group was given an eight-session course on study habits. But one group also received a 50 minute unit built around the theme that intelligence is not innate, and the brain is a muscle – the more one uses it the stronger it becomes.
Teachers in the school were not told which students were in which group, but they had no trouble picking out those who had been taught that intelligence can be developed. Their grades and study habits showed significant improvement. Within a semester, Dweck and Blackwell had reversed a long-time downward trend in math scores.
Much of Dweck's work deals with the impact of different types of praise. Contrary to popular belief and practice, she discovered that praising children for being smart can often have a deleterious impact on educational achievement. Praising them for effort, by contrast, has a positive effect.
Children who are praised from an early age for their native intelligence often become obsessed with protecting their image as "smart." They tend to give up easily when they are intellectually challenged or do not grasp things immediately. They also come to devalue effort and to view working hard as a contradiction to their image of as "smart kids." Ultimately, too much praise for their native intelligence can even cause them to underestimate their own abilities. Because they downplay the importance of effort, they may conclude that their failure to understand anything immediately proves that the earlier praise was unjustified.
In one fascinating experiment, Dweck and her team gave two groups of kids a puzzle to do. After completing the puzzle, one group was told, "You must be smart at this." The other group was told, "You must have worked really hard." That single sentence was the only difference between the two groups.
Next the two groups were offered a choice: They could try another more difficult puzzle from which they were told they would learn a lot or do a second puzzle of an equal level of difficulty. A majority of those praised for being smart opted for the easier puzzle. Over 90% of those praised for their effort chose the more difficult puzzle.
In a subsequent test, both groups were given a puzzle way above their grade level to work on. Those who had been praised for their effort kept plugging away, and even spontaneously expressed their enjoyment in trying to figure out the puzzle. Those who had been praised for their intelligence, however, began sweating at the first signs of difficulty and generally looked miserable.
Finally, the two groups were given a third puzzle as easy as the first. The performance of those who had received a single sentence of praise for effort improved 30% over the first test, while that of those who had been praised for their intelligence actually declined 20%.
In another set of experiments, Professor Dweck's team tested students on two puzzles. Between the first and second test, they were offered the choice of learning a new puzzle strategy or finding out how they ranked compared to others. Those praised for intelligence chose knowing their rank on the first test; those praised for effort chose to learn a new strategy.
In short, image maintenance takes precedence over actual learning for those praised for their natural ability. In another test students were asked to fill out their own report card, which they were told would be sent to an anonymous student at another school. Even though they were told that they would never meet the anonymous student, 40% of those praised for their intelligence inflated their actual scores, compared to almost none of those praised for effort.
IF THESE LESSONS APPLY TO SECULAR SUBJECTS, HOW MUCH MORE SO TO THE STUDY OF TORAH. Many years ago, I was talking to a fairly recent ba’al teshuva. He had always been one of the "smart" kids. He told me that the first time he ever found himself learning something purely for subject itself, without any need to constantly compare himself to everyone else in the class, was when he began learning Gemara.
Indeed seeing how Gemara only yielded its secrets to those who were willing to break their heads over it became for him one of the proofs of the truth of Torah. He related how his first chavrusah told him at the very start of their learning together, "I'm not quick like you." Yet within six weeks, that chavrusah was elevated to a higher shiur while he remained behind.
When he expressed his surprise at this unexpected turn of events, an acquaintance gave him the sharpest piece of mussar he had ever received. "The difference between the two of you," he said, "is that he wants to know Hashem's word; you're still worried about being first in your class."
Only then did he understand that Torah only reveals its secrets to those willing to break their heads to understand Hashem’s will. As Chazal say, "Be careful with the poor, for from them Torah will emanate" (Nedarim 81.)Only the "poor"– those who do not rely on their own native talents – will succeed. Or as one of those closest to Rav Elyashiv told me recently, "The Rav doesn't hold from kishronos (native intelligence) only hasmoda (diligence)."