The entity vs incremental theory of intelligence

I’m running revision sessions with my esl students at the moment and one of my boys came up to me for help with his work. He was having trouble understanding the whole concept of place values and in the course of our conversation he apologised and said he couldn’t understand maths. This young man, about 15 now, had spent his early years without education and working to support his family. His first taste of learning began less than a year ago when he moved to Australia. He felt he was incapable of learning maths.

The article   “Do ‘Consoling’ Messages Hinder Math Achievement?” by Laura A Cooper (Research I’m Reading Published in Vol 28 no 3, May/June 2012) I accessed through the Harvard Education Letter (http://www.hepg.org/hel/article/536 )  addressed this issue of our students ability to assess their learning.

Yes, this boy can learn. And what I did for him was I went back to the basics again and moved him through some exercises to build bridges that hadn’t been firmed up yet. With hard work on his part, I believe he will get there. I must make him believe that he can get there. The key is teachers who believe their students can learn and have the expertise and resources to build those bridges of knowledge.

I am reminded of one of the teachers I first worked with in a Queensland school. The esl students coming into the mainstream classes required, as expected, specialist help.  At one memorable meeting, she declared that they were just less intelligent and could not be helped.  I cringe even now as I remember that occasion.

My own children were almost victims to such a mentality. When my daughter was in primary school I was called in because she was acting up and was not getting any of her maths work done. I realised the school could not help her. So, for a year, I went through the basics of all her maths again at home, which meant she had to work at a pace quite different from her class. The result however was pleasing to my girl at least, and me – she scored distinctions in maths at the end of that year, to the surprise of course of her teacher. She has now graduated from uni and one of her best subjects in her psychology course was statistics.

My son is now in an engineering course in uni. When he was in primary 5 and 6 his maths teacher informed me that it was not possible to cover the full maths syllabus for their crucial PSLE exams because these students couldn’t cope.  This was hard to stomach of course, especially when this son had demonstrated from pre school days an amazing ability to mentally calculate complex maths problems.  I made the choice to move my children to an environment that would be more condusive for their learning. Not everyone has that opportunity.

Every child has the ability to learn. The professionalism of the the teacher is tested in their ability to read their students and address each students needs. It is this that makes a good teacher, and for a teacher to develop these traits, there must be commitment, access to resources, support, experience and tons of time.  It is unfortunate that in an environment where teaching is not valued by policy makers this professionalism cannot be enhanced and developed appropriately.  Students are the ones who lose out.

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