Learning and the Little Engine that Could

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

“But it is too hard. I am never going to get it,” whined the boy to his mother as he stared at the long sheet of math problems.

His mother came over to the kitchen table and said, “Look, you haven’t even tried these yet. You are a smart boy. I am sure you will figure it out.”

The boy waited until his mother left the kitchen, then snuck outside to play leaving his math sheet sat untouched.

Homework time can be a struggle in many households. Parents may wonder why their children refuse to put forth much effort to complete their homework. One explanation as to why this occurs centers on how children view their own intelligence.

When children are young, they view their intelligence as something that can change based on the amount of effort they put forth in learning a new skill or completing a task. In many ways, these young children resemble the Little Engine that Could. When the Little Engine was given a tough task, it was able to accomplish it by saying, “I think I can. I think I can.”

The Little Engine persevered on its’ difficult task and ultimately was successful. Young children are the same way. They want to master the skill and continue to test and expand their intelligence. If they fail, they attribute the failure to not trying hard enough and then try again.

There were other trains in the story of the Little Engine that Could. These big engines were capable of helping the train of toys over the mountain. However, each one refused to even try saying they had a specific purpose and that pulling a train of toys was not one of them.

In this case, the big engines were behaving a lot like older children and their view of intelligence. At this point, children begin to view their intelligence as something that is fixed. This means that when older children are given more difficult tasks, they are likely to put forth minimal effort and then give up. They think that if something does not come easily, then it must be because they are not smart enough.

How soon children change from little engine thinking to big engine thinking about their intelligence depends on the feedback that they get from their parents and teachers. When adults attribute children’s failures to not trying hard enough, they convey the message that effort matters in completing difficult tasks.

On the other hand, there are adults who say, “I know, I never got math either.” This sends a message to children that reinforces the view that once intelligence is fixed, effort does not matter. This leads children to only try when tasks are easy or moderately difficult so that they can be successful and thereby prove their intelligence.

The longer children are able to keep their little engine thinking about their intelligence, the better they do in their classes. Parents and teachers can encourage children to keep this mindset by praising their children for the efforts they put towards mastering a new skill or completing a task rather than focusing on the end result.

On the flip side, parents should avoid saying things like, “You’re so smart” after children finish a task quickly to an easy problem. This can encourage children to associate being smart with speed and lack of effort.

Parents who encourage their children to keep little engine thinking for as long as possible will find that they are more likely to persevere when confronted with difficult tasks and they will end up learning more than children who adopt big engine thinking.

This article was published in the Richmond Register daily Friday on May 6, 2016

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