I saw this post on Carol Dweck‘s work, and I found it really interesting. She talks about how some people believe that intelligence is inherent, while others believe it can be increased with practice and effort. Those who believe it is inherent are performance-minded, and want to perform well whether they actually understand what’s going on or not. Those who believe it can be increased are more focused on actually learning and mastering things. They don’t mind failing, because it is just another step to learning, and it even motivates them to try harder, while performance-oriented people view failure as a threat to their self-image, because if they fail, they must not be inherently intelligent.
Ultimately, mastery-oriented people will learn more, because taking risks and accepting challenges, even those ending in failure, is more conducive to actual learning than just trying to “pass.” Ideally, this type of learning is preferred over performance-based thinking. However, Doug S. mentions the conflict brought on by incentive systems:
“If failure is punished more than avoiding situations that may cause failure, then you just might end up with a lot of people who would rather not risk failing.”
I think this failure-phobia atmosphere is especially encouraged in academia. For example, in college, taking a hard course and failing, especially if done repeatedly, could result in the loss of a scholarship, the loss of the privilege of attending the college, and a transcript that scares off future employers. It’s obviously less detrimental to take an easy course where success is assured and get a higher GPA.
But does that mean that learning is taking place? Not necessarily. My friend RuthAnne homeschools her children, and she was explaining to me a few years ago that the beauty of homeschooling is that the focus is on learning the material, not passing the tests. It’s about mastering the skills and concepts, not about scraping by by the skin of your teeth. I think a lot of students’ learning problems come from the fact that academia does not foster an environment for learning; before you can concentrate on learning anything, you first have to survive.