If you are struggling to get the hang of something, often the last thing you want to hear about is someone who excels at that thing. Don’t go on and on about your latest marathon to someone who is struggling to run around the block; don’t brag about your recent promotion to someone who is unemployed.
This is basic politeness. And, in a weird way, it might apply to high-school kids in the science classroom, too. Don’t just tell students about the accomplishments of famous scientists like Albert Einstein and Marie Curie. Tell them about their struggles, too, argue the authors of one recent study. Hearing that the greats also faced obstacles seems to motivate students to improve their own achievements in science.
Funded with a grant from the National Science Foundation, the researchers focused on a group of about 400 freshmen and sophomores from the Bronx and Harlem. Some of these students read about the discoveries of scientists like Einstein and Curie, similar to the way they’d read it in their own science textbooks. Another group of the students read about the famous scientists, but their text included references to the scientists’ personal struggles, like the German-born Einstein choosing not to return to his home country when Hitler came to power in the 1930s. And a third group read about the scientists’ troubles with science itself. For example, here’s what this group read about Curie:
It was frustrating that many experiments ended up in failure; however, Curie would not let herself stay sad for too long. Instead, she returned to where things did not work out and tried again. Often working hour after hour and day after day, Curie focused on solving challenging problems and learning from her mistakes. She knew that the way of progress was never easy, and later, she said, “I never yield to any difficulties.”
After six weeks, the kids who’d read about these obstacles tended to improve their grades in their science classes, and the kids with the lowest scores at the start of the study benefited the most. Those in the control group — who read the typical, tidied-up version of the scientists’ accomplishments — were also more likely to tell the researchers that they believed Einstein and Curie had a natural talent for science.
A few things could be happening here. It could be that including personal narratives of the lives of these figures makes them more interesting, which, in turn, makes science seem more worthy of the students’ attention. Or this could be tapping into the power of the growth mind-set — the idea that intelligence and talent are not entirely fixed; rather, they can improve with practice. Success stories are fun, but failures are worth dwelling on, too.