Many students are not doing as well in school as they or their parents would like. Others have to work unreasonable hours to get good results. In both these situations, many teens form negative opinions about themselves: “I’m not good at this subject.” “I can’t do it.” “I am a procrastinator.” They think that there’s something wrong with their intelligence and motivation, which in turn, causes further poor performance and discouragement.
Instead, we have found that student performance depends mostly on doing enough of the right kind of practice, rather than on intelligence and motivation.
Obviously there are differences between people in capability, talent and interests. But research has shown that 95% of students have the intelligence to master everything in the high and college curriculums. This has been our experience with hundreds of thousands of teenagers and young adults. They have sufficient intelligence to excel in school.
So, is the problem a lack of motivation? We think the answer is no. Well, you might ask, “Don’t you find that students who excel are motivated and hard working? Yes, we do, but we don’t think students work hard because they are motivated. Rather we think working hard comes first. That leads to better results, and those better results increase motivation. We have been remarkably successful in helping students by teaching them the best study skills and coaching them to apply them. In a few dozen hours, they learn and apply better methods, and realize they have become more powerful learners. This sets up a self-sustaining positive feedback loop for future successes. Nothing succeeds like success.
To illustrate this, imagine we are in the first grade, and one kid can add more accurately and slightly faster than the rest of us. Perhaps he matured a little more quickly or his grandmother tutored him (as my grandmother did). In any case, this kid gets a gold star and a lot of recognition. So he is likely to enjoy math and spend more time rather than less doing math assignments.
So this child, who can’t even subtract yet, is told he’s “good at math” and starts thinking of himself in that way. By high school graduation, he will have spent about 5000 hours learning math and gotten very good at it. Is that because of intelligence or initial motivation? Not really. It is mainly because he did more practice and got positive feedback throughout the K-12 years.
The key ingredient in launching a student on a trajectory of success is to help them do enough of the right practice to experience initial success as a learner.
In his best-selling book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell documents an example of this among young hockey players in Canada. Youth hockey levels are determined by your age on January 1st. So youngsters born in the first half of the year are a little older and bigger than those born in the second half the year. That advantage helps them do better initially. As a result, they play more, get more coaching and become more motivated. This explains why a sizable majority of professional hockey player from Canada have birthdays in January through June.