Why We Need to Learn About the Failures of the Experts

Take a look at these two descriptions of scientists.

“By the time she reached college, [she] was able to understand five languages [...] Not only was she the first woman to receive a degree in physics [from the Sorbonne], she was also selected for a prestigious award when she graduated.”

“It was frustrating that many experiments ended up in failure [...] Often working hour after hour and day after day, [she] focused on solving challenging problems and learning from her mistakes.”

Which one of them sounds more relatable, or makes you think that you could become a scientist too? Probably the second one, right?

It might surprise you to know that these descriptions are actually about the same person: two-time Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie. The stories were used as part of a study to find out what happens when we teach about pioneers and experts as people who have failed and struggled, as opposed to extraordinary individuals, far removed from your average student.

What stories do we tell about Einstein?

When we think of Einstein, we think of a genius. Nobel Prize winner, “father of modern physics”, gravity defying hair, a guy who was just naturally good at science. So when psychologists talked to 400 Grade 9 and 10 students in low-income New York City neighbours, they weren’t surprised to find that none of the students really identified with Einstein. Most students believed that science pioneers were people with natural talent, something that separated them from everyone else. They almost didn’t see them as actual people, with imperfections and challenges like themselves. Xiaodong Lin-Siegler, along with her team from Columbia University and University of Washington, decided to see what happened when they changed the story.

What happens when we change the way we tell stories and success?

The group of psychologists divided the 400 students into 3 groups, and gave them different stories about “eminent scientists”. The first group of students got stories that showed the intellectual struggles the scientists faced, like having difficulty in school and failed experiments. The second group of students got stories that showed the scientists facing difficulties in their personal life, like living in poverty or facing discrimination. The third group of students got stories that were focused on the achievements of the scientists, including their awards, discoveries, and legacy. The students’ grades were measured before and after reading these stories, and the results were very positive. Students that read either of the stories about the scientists struggling saw their grades go up, and many of them felt more connected to the scientists. The change was most pronounced in students who had low science grades before they read the stories; they saw the most improvement in their grades if they read the story about the scientists struggling, and also saw the most decline in their grades if they were only presented with the stories about the scientists’ success.

Fixed mindset vs growth mindset

The two types of stories reflect two ways of looking at developing skills and abilities: fixed mindset and growth mindset. Fixed mindset supports the version of the stories focused on the achievements and successes of the scientists; they presented the scientists as being naturally skilled. Growth mindset on the other hand, supports the first two versions of the story; presenting the scientist as people who had to work hard to develop their skills and had to overcome obstacles to achieve their goals. Changing the type of stories that we tell students in science class can change their mindset, and their results.

Does this exist outside of science class?

While the impact of changing the stories hasn’t been studied within other subjects, a study from UC San Diego suggests that children learn about growth mindset vs. fixed mindset at home too, and that these beliefs can also affect their success in school. In a study of parents and their kids in Grades 4 and 5, researchers found that parents who think that failure is debilitating are more likely to have kids with fixed mindsets. They tend to be more focused on grades and outcomes, instead of on learning and growth, which can make students more worried when they try something new or hard. When they asked a different group of parents how they would react if their child brought home a failing test score, they found that the reactions of parents varied based on their mindset, giving their children very different tools to respond to failure.

Parents with a fixed mindset saw the test as indicative of the child’s performance in the subject as a whole; one failed science test meant that they were struggling in science, not just on that one test. If they were trying to comfort their child, they would remind them that no one is good at everything, and point to their skills in other subjects. Parents with a growth mindset were more likely to ask questions about the test and what the child learned from writing it. They focused the child’s attention on identifying their knowledge gap, and suggesting that they seek help from a teacher or peer. These students were handed different solutions and ideas about what failure meant; some were being taught that aptitude is innate, that some of us just aren’t good at science, while others were being taught that being persistent and solution-focused can turn failures into learning opportunities.

Failing doesn’t have to be permanent

Showing students how failure doesn’t have to be permanent, and that even people with great success face challenges and make mistakes, can greatly impact their belief in their own skills and their interest and motivation in different subjects and pursuits. And while the impact of telling stories of failure hasn’t been tested outside of science, we’re ready to try it out.

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