Build a better brain

Teens do better in science when they know Einstein and Curie also struggled

Apparently learning that science does not always come naturally—even to geniuses—helps children succeed.

Students who learned that great scientists struggled, both personally and intellectually, outperformed those who learned only of the scientists’ great achievements, new research shows.

Ninth- and 10th-grade students in low-performing New York City schools who read about Albert Einstein’s struggles, including multiple school changes and trouble convincing others that gravity from a large object like a planet could actually bend light, performed better in science than a control group who learned only about what the scientists achieved.

Xiaodong Lin-Siegler, an associate professor of cognitive studies at Columbia University’s Teachers College who led the study, told Quartz that the results surprised her. The experiment could have gone two ways, she explained: Learning that Einstein or Curie struggled could lead kids to throw up their hands and say “if Einstein can’t do it, then I certainly can’t either.” Or, it might inspire them by showing that everyone—even the greats—face seemingly insurmountable challenges.

“In our culture we always say you don’t want to intimidate kids, you don’t want to tell them how hard the work is,” she noted. But the experiment showed the opposite strategy works better: Showing how great scientists had to muddle through lots of tough stuff made the subject matter real and allowed students to connect with them as people.

“We think kids are so fragile,” she told Quartz. “Tell them the truth. They are resilient.”

The study, published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, divided 402 ninth- and 10th-graders from four New York City public schools in Harlem and the Bronx into three groups. One group read an 800-word excerpt from a scientific textbook on the accomplishments of Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, and Michael Faraday (an English scientist who made discoveries about electromagnetism).

Another group learned about the scientists’ personal struggles, such as the fact that Einstein had to flee Nazi Germany to avoid persecution, or Marie Curie had to study in secret because women were discouraged from academic pursuits at the time. The third group learned about the scientists’ intellectual struggles and how they confronted them.

After six weeks, the two groups who learned about how the scientists struggled significantly improved their science grades and increased their motivation to study science. The lowest performing students showed the greatest gains.

Meanwhile, the students who learned only about the scientists’ achievements performed worse. They believed the scientists were innately gifted—unlike themselves.

The study underpins a few key findings from the science of learning:

Some people learn better when the content has meaning to them. For those students, science comes to life more through personal stories than through the actual scientific content.

And kids who learn that intellect is a malleable thing, something to be built rather than inherited, take more academic risks and perform better. The study adds to the growing body of research in favor of teaching this “growth mindset” or the belief that the brain, like other muscles in the body, can be strengthened and improved through struggle and hard work.

Lin-Siegler argues that teaching and science textbooks could be vastly improved, to help engage students and promote STEM—if they were transformed from overweight catalogues of formulas to explorations of the fascinating back stories that led to all that scientific knowledge.

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