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Limits of Intervention on Performance

I'm always open to evidence that questions conventional wisdom.  But I think a healthy skepticism is in order when reading about studies that seem too good to be true ("Nudges That Help Struggling Students Succeed," The New York Times, Oct. 30).

I'm referring specifically to the alleged powerful effect of changing students' mind-sets about their academic ability.  No one disputes that giving students encouragement can help them improve their work.  The question is how much can it help?  It takes a certain basic IQ to handle academic material.  No amount of support can significantly boost the performance of students who are below average in intelligence.  Yes, those students can improve, but I don't believe in miracles.  There are limitations that cannot be denied.

The chances of improvement are greatest by far in the early grades when students' brains are most malleable and attitudes haven't hardened.  By the time they get to high school, it's problematic, which is why so many college freshmen are so frustrated. The anonymous author of In the Basement of the Ivory Tower (Viking, 2011) describes how his best efforts at encouraging students failed to make much of a difference in the quality of their work.

I never taught elementary school.  But during the 28 years that I taught English in the same high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I saw the limitations that students brought to class and had so much difficulty significantly improving.  I keep emphasizing "significantly" to avoid being accused of being a defeatist. Certainly, teachers should continue to encourage their students.  But this column is not called "Fantasy Enhancement."

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