Smarter Than the Rest

No, It’s Not Me

I do well on tests.  Someone early in my life clued me in on the secret to standardized testing, and I think that most people now know the formula:

  1. Look at the answer choices, then read the question.
  2. Eliminate the two obviously wrong answers.
  3. Analyze the two remaining answers to determine the most probable correct answer.

Having learned this, and by being able to read at a level that was scored five or six years advanced of whatever age I was, I was able to convince teachers and those around me that I was exceptionally intelligent.

I wish I hadn’t done that.  I wish I hadn’t convinced my teachers and parents that I was smarter than all the rest.  I wish I had spent more time actually learning and studying and working hard than trying to show off to people.  I didn’t master the materials.  I mastered demonstrating mastery, and I have since learned the difference.  My mother told me later that she had made the same mistake.  She did well on standardized testing and scored “145″ on the Stanford-Binet assessment.  While this may mean that she was smarter than Obama, it also led her to study to do well on tests while not mastering the materials.

She was praised for doing so well on the tests.  She earned As all the way through high school.  I have seen her report cards, and she received praise from all her teachers and from her parents.  But she was frustrated, because she would rather have taken the time to learn the workings of the cell and how biologists knew what they knew.  She would rather have spent more time applying maths to things that she wanted to do with them.  She would rather have retained her knowledge beyond the most recent test rather than rush off to prepare for the next test.  She would rather have taken her time learning.

She didn’t finish a four-year degree.  She earned a two-year degree and passed her certification to be a teacher in the public school system.  She loved her job as a teacher and reluctantly gave it up to be a stay-at-home mother to four kids.  ((I was the 5th of 7 and she had left teaching full time just before my twin sister and I were conceived.))  When we were old enough, she entered continuing education, but when she died two years ago she had yet to finish her bachelor’s degree.  Her lack of a degree was not a measure of her intelligence any more than her score in the Stanford-Binet.

She told me all this one night just after I dropped out of college.  She was upset that I hadn’t talked to her about it first and shared her reasoning.  Her bachelor’s was the one goal that she had yet to achieve and she regretted that she hadn’t yet walked down the aisle at a commencement ceremony.  She never gave up the idea, because she knew that she was intelligent and she believed that she was letting herself down by not living up to her potential.  She didn’t want to see this happen to me, and here I am always just inches away from a bachelor’s degree in something.

Whenever results from the standardized test such as the Iowa Basics came back, it turned out that I had scored in the 99th percentile, so the teachers always cut me more slack than they did the other kids in elementary school.  If I hadn’t finished a math, spelling or reading assignment, the teachers would give me extra time because they assumed that I had been busy reading a dictionary or an encyclopedia instead.  They were justified in thinking so, because that was often the case.  I learned to coast through school without getting caught or warned or straightened out by the teachers in charge of me.  I can’t completely fault them; they wanted to make sure that the “less intelligent” pupils received the attention that they thought I didn’t need so badly.  I learned to coast because I was not held accountable for effort.

I also learned that the values pupils and students placed on their peers was related at various stages to their perceived intelligence.  In elementary school, I was valued by my peers for being smart, but that changed as I moved into junior and senior high school.  These were the ages when athleticism was more valued than intelligence.  I lost my status because I was most definitely not very athletic.  Yes, in sixth grade basketball I had helped my team win the intramural championship, but this was mostly because I was taller than the other sixth graders and was able to get the occasional lucky tip to a teammate who always seemed to be in the right place.  In seventh grade, the other guys grew beyond me and I was never better than a second-stringer.  In the meantime, my smarts were not important except that my classmates always wanted to sit next to me so that they could read my answers and cheat.

I was being used by them. To get away from that, I started playing down the fact that I was “smarter than the rest” among my peers in hoping to gain acceptance.  It never worked, and I found myself becoming less and less popular and having few friends in school.  In retrospect, I should have done what I wanted and spent my after-school time in the science lab doing extra work and digging into the ways to answer the questions that were not being answered in the textbooks.  I should have done extra data collection and analysis.  I would have served me well and I would have been more excited about actually doing science than reading about what other people were doing in science.  I treated it too much like a spectator sport, I think.

I still treat science as a spectator sport.  I am fascinated by the results of scientific exploration, study and analysis.  I read it voraciously, even though I usually have to skip over most of the details of published papers to get to an understanding of what the authors either demonstrated or disproved.  I want to understand and know the details as to how they arrived at their results but get frustrated that I only know experimental design and methodology up to a certain level of comprehension. I don’t have a strong enough understanding to read through the literature reviews that helped them shape their studies and so, when all is said and done, I ultimately am put in the position when reading a published paper of having to “trust” the authors and reviewers to have done the work properly to justify those results.

When learning more and more about skepticality and how it works, I hate having to “trust” at the level that would give me the confidence that the results and abstracts are accurate reflections of the dataset and variable interactions.  The reason I get frustrated is because I have learned that they can make mistakes and still get published in peer-reviewed works, which is why they publish.  Their results are read, analyzed and retested by yet another set of researchers who know how to approach problem-solving in that area.

One of the most crucial scientific issues that we face today is the effect of anthropogenic global warming.  I am at a level of understanding in this issue that is hardly any more advanced than the rest of the general public.  I read popular articles on the subject, I read realclimate.org, I read Tim Lambert’s Deltoid, I read James Hrynshyn’s The Island of Doubt, and I read Greg’s series on AGW each time he republishes it.  I think I understand the issue more each time I do this, but I am still left in a position of trust on their explanations because I am not a climatologist.  I trust these writers and explainers, but as a skeptic, I still have to hold back on complete acceptance because I don’t have the skill and background to sufficiently analyze what is going on.  I do trust the people I refer to here, but it doesn’t give me the degree of certainty that makes me satisfied that I am able to defend completely the conclusions that are presented to me except as scientific consensus.

In the meantime, I am thinking of how stupid it was for me to make an emotional and irrational decision to leave college when I did. It was a decision that I can’t undo, and I can only try to finish what I started.  I realize that if I hadn’t done so, then I would be able to be more fully confident in what I read about scientific issues, or perhaps I would actually be participating in the study.

So, what happened?  When I got to college, I realized that I couldn’t “coast.”  The professors and evaluators hadn’t seen my standardized test results, and if they had they wouldn’t have cared.  They wanted me to demonstrate more than a good casual understanding of the material.  They wanted me to demonstrate not that I had accepted their lectures, but that I had mastered the process that they were teaching me.

In my first foray back to the university world following the dropout, I studied experimental psychology at North Dakota State University in Fargo.  I had previously taken classes in statistics and analysis at the Psych 200 levels, and as a result the first two weeks of the course were largely review of materials I understood very well.  I earned an A+ on the first exam.  I was proud of that, but then I coasted in that class while concentrating on others and working at a restaurant 60+ hours per week.  I ended up failing the class, because I couldn’t write the paper for the final grade.

There are some clues now as to what may happen to pupils who are praised in their early education for their intelligence, and they indicate to me that I may not be alone among people who have a great capacity to learn and understand but haven’t lived up to their potential.  A study published in 2007 shows that pupils who are praised for their ability follow with decreasing effort and subsequent testing reveals that they didn’t concentrate on mastering the subject material. There is a good article on the study in the New York Magazine:

Dweck had suspected that praise could backfire, but even she was surprised by the magnitude of the effect. “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control,” she explains. “They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.”

And I do tend to avoid doing things that I may fail in, and have to push myself in order to “jump in.”  Dweck adds to her point in this Q&A in Education World:

EW: Some students see intelligence as a fixed characteristic; it is a quality that people are born with and little can be done to change it. Others hold a more changeable view of intelligence; they think most anyone can learn new things and “stretch” their intelligence. Clearly, it seems that students with a changeable view of intelligence might fare better when faced with a learning challenge. But can anything be done to change those students who have a fixed view of their intelligence so that they might do better when facing a challenging learning task?

Dweck: You’re right. Students who believe that intelligence is a potential that they can develop do fare better when faced with challenge. For example, they often blossom across a challenging school transition when their fellow students with the fixed view are busy doubting themselves and losing their edge.

We have found with students of all ages, from early grade school through college, that the changeable view can be taught. Students can be taught that their intellectual skills are things that can be cultivated — through their hard work, reading, education, confronting of challenges, etc. When they are taught this, they seem naturally to become more eager for challenges, harder working, and more able to cope with obstacles. Researchers (for example, Joshua Aronson of the University of Texas) have even shown that college students’ grade point averages go up when they are taught that intelligence can be developed.

It is interesting to me that these beliefs about intelligence seem to be fairly stable individual differences when left to themselves. But they also can be changed fairly readily when students are confronted with the alternative view in an explicit and compelling way.

Further, I have found in working with my own kids on their homework that I don’t have the patience to be a teacher.  Since I grasped many of the things they work on rather quickly, I expect them to do the same when they approach new problems and assignments.  I assume that they are wanting me to do the work for them, because they look to me to provide the answers.  When they can’t, I have found myself getting angry at them for not trying hard enough.  I seem to place the same value on the idea of “fixed intelligence” that my teachers and parents placed on me.  Their mother forbade my helping my oldest daughter with homework when she was in 4th grade and struggling with pre-algebra arrays. I saw and worked with the patterns as soon as she showed them to me, and I tried to explain as well as I could, but when she still didn’t understand how to work with them, I got angry and yelled at her.  It was not a proud moment.

Intelligence is complex set of values, and it certainly can not be determined through design and application of  multiple choice exams. Neither can it be applied across cultures and experiential norms without careful definition of what “intelligence” is when it is measured.  On Monday, Stephanie posted a series of links to articles and discussions of the psychological implications and measurements of intelligence and they are written for those of us who don’t have advanced experience in the field. I encourage readers to go back to look at them and read them.  Also check out the great discussion that followed in the comments.

In my experience, the label was detrimental.  I got by even though I was lazy.  My sister, labeled as less intelligent than I, graduated Summa Cum Laude and went on to a Master’s degree.  I am proud of her, because she achieved through effort.  She hated that she had to work so hard while I skated by, but now look.

My IQ from one test I took as a college student seems to be 145.  The same score as my mother.  Barack Obama’s has been reported as 142.  I am, then, smarter than him.  He is now President of the United States, and I work in a phone bank.  I can’t conclude that I am “smarter than the rest.”

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15 Responses to “Smarter Than the Rest”

  1. December 26th, 2009 at 5:20 am

    Glendon Mellow says:

    A powerful piece, Mike. I understand being inches away from a degree – I sometimes feel like my entire professional life has been on hold since I left my undergrad unfinished 12 years ago.

    When I was in grade 9, I had a gifted program teacher who spent over half the year teaching us how to study, and we turned to the actual curriculum only in the last few months. It was useful and wonderful, but I let too many high school teachers after that grind me down, and turn me away from subjects I loved.

    Choosing to go into art instead of science was in some ways a reaction to the education I wasn’t receiving.

  2. December 26th, 2009 at 7:48 am

    Ann Godridge says:

    Thank you for sharing this, Mike, it explained such a lot to me that I’ve been groping towards understanding over the past few years.

    From the time I took my first exam at Junior School, I have always been top of the class, an A student, and told I was intelligent. It was never something I was proud of – my family made it clear that it was just luck, it wasn’t something I had earned. I was just lucky. They were disappointed in me when I dropped out of University, they thought it was because I didn’t value something that I hadn’t had to work for.

    This year I finally graduated – a mere thirty years later than originally planned. All through school and in my first attempt at a degree at Liverpool University, I won prizes and scholarships and did exceptionally well. But when my father died (I mostly worked to please him) I dropped out of University without completing my degree.

    Over the last few years I studied with the Open University and earned a few credits, although not enough for graduation. I found the Open University very different, more challenging. Half the marks were for continuous assessment – no more coasting and cramming at the last minute. They expected me not just to regurgitate – but to reason and argue and demonstrate understanding.

    I joke about it now, and say I feel like a remedial student, that it came as a shock to me that you weren’t just good at something, you actually sometimes had to work at it. I discovered that through play, with the textile arts. As a left brained (and yes, I know that’s probably meaningless, but I bet you know what I mean) person, I am useless at art, but my textiles tutor apologised to me at the end of the course, because she had to give me a low mark – because she said of all the students she had ever had, I had made the most progress, considering how far back I started. I am more proud of that than all my A grades put together, because I learned an important life lesson and started to apply it to other areas that matter to me.

    I’m not sure about the lazy label – I think that’s another counter-productive way of looking at ourselves.

    I don’t think I am lazy. At University the first time, I recall being one of a group of students who went to see one of our lecturers to ask how we could write better essays – and his answer was to say that was for us to find out. At the time, I accepted it – but realise now that he was more likely a “coaster himself” and simply had no idea how to answer. I also dropped out because I became discouraged when I lost marks for writing essays that disagreed with the tutor’s point of view – even when I felt I had made a reasoned case and cited sources, and discussed both sides of the argument. I didn’t take kindly to being told I was simply wrong, and he didn’t take kindly to me asking him to demonstrate why.

    In my Open University courses I have worked the hardest I have ever worked on anything – and I am enjoying it very much. The difference isn’t in my basic nature – it’s in how I think about what I’m doing, and in learning to endure the discomfort of being bad at something while I’m learning.

    And now I’m trying to apply those lessons to writing a novel – which has always been my dream. I just hadn’t realised that it would involve, you know, hard work…

    Ann

  3. December 26th, 2009 at 5:30 pm

    khan says:

    Mike, a similar thing happened to me.

    I was the ‘big frog in a little pond’ in high school. I did learn the stuff and it was easy (and seemed to me) intuitive. As a result I did not learn how to study.

    My BA was in Math. After Calculus the stuff was no longer intuitive. I didn’t understand why I didn’t understand it.

    I (barely) graduated college with a 2.85.

  4. December 27th, 2009 at 5:44 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    Good luck on the novel, Ann.
    When I got into statistics in college, Khan, I found it was more a matter of using algebra, and I didn’t understand why people had such a problem with it, such a phobia. Of course, I had a fantastic professor in each College Algebra and Statistics for Psychological Applications.

    Thanks, Glendon! Art seems to have been a great direction for you, anyway so I am glad you took that path. You have achieved a great deal with it, and can be proud.

  5. December 27th, 2009 at 6:01 pm

    boygenius says:

    Mike,

    My primary education experience mirrors yours perfectly. Always 5-6 years ahead of the curve on reading and comprehension, top 99th percentile on the Iowa Basics, straight A’s without cracking a book. My biggest struggle through it all was sheer boredom. Sitting there trying not to scream as the teacher explained everything 3-4 times so that everyone in the class could understand. I was excited to go to college (NDSU). I (wrongly) assumed that it would be different. It was deja vu all over again. My biggest gripe was “daily work”. Worksheets to fill out and pop quizzes to take that only covered the info. from the most recent lecture. Because of the monotony of it all, I rarely went to class. I got A’s on all the tests, but when “daily work” is 50% of the final grade guess what. Yep, you still fail. I had figured that my “intelligence” would be enough. I was wrong.

    I became disillusioned and disappointed. Then, some friends dragged me to my first Grateful Dead show. I got hooked. Big time. Two months after that first show, I dropped out of school, quit both my jobs and hit the road. I don’t have any regrets, really. I got a different kind of education traveling the U.S. from coast to coast. Hitching rides, sleeping in parking garages, living by my wits day to day. (None of which translates easily to any kind of gainful employment, but hey, I had a blast and wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything.)

    Now that I’m pushing 40, however, I feel an increasing need to go back to school and finish up my degree. Without the vigor of youth. Without the parental support. With a mortgage. With a small business to run. Twenty some years after the fact I now realize that those hoops they make you jump through (daily work) prepare you for the real world, which is made up of endless hoops and continuous jumping. I realize now that it’s not necessarily how intelligent you are, it’s how hard you are willing to work towards your goals. (I know plenty of people with degrees that are certainly not the brightest bulbs on the string.)

    Anyway, I enjoyed your post very much. Thank you.

    Jason

  6. December 27th, 2009 at 6:18 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    That’s where I have been the last few years, trying to pay for just the few remaining classes that I need in order to finish. With a degree in Organizational Management and Communications, not my field of great interest but it will do in order to get the paper.

  7. December 27th, 2009 at 9:48 pm

    Peter Lund says:

    “At University the first time, I recall being one of a group of students who went to see one of our lecturers to ask how we could write better essays – and his answer was to say that was for us to find out.”

    Robert Boice might be your friend, then.

  8. December 28th, 2009 at 6:55 am

    Hakan says:

    Well I can say I’m no different than what happened to the writer. I don’t think intelligence is malleable. But intelligence as a concept makes you somehow think about your actions, behavior or what you are in a deterministic and mechanistic way. You don’t think you can do better, or push harder. Because you don’t have to be something any more. You have a high IQ and that’s all. You don’t have to prove this. Your intelligence will do all the magical things for you. I think this is some kind of obsession.I am so obsessed with my IQ that It paralyzes my free will. I fear being intelligent no more when I do something different than the routine. That’s not a healthy view and I think people who happens to have high IQ but feels failure, just can’t infer on things healthily, can’t think like a normal, healthy person. I don’t mean if you are highly intelligent and feel disappointed about yourself, you definitely need proffesional help. But if you think you should be sucessful by just doing nothing you need.

    In the end what makes our intelligence so useless is, our never ending ruminations about it. That’s why Obama is the president, he did care other things much more than his intelligence for success. He mustn’t have wasted time by ruminations about if he’s intelligent enough or not.

  9. December 28th, 2009 at 12:04 pm

    Scotlyn says:

    This is so spot on … it’s unbelievable. Same story, effortless A’s, 99th percentile test results, drop out – not in college, but at anthropology PhD level – it was realising that I didn’t have what it took to do actual field work of my own – the whole having-to-work-hard business of it, together with the stick-to-one-subjectness of it! I’d never had to do hard mental work before, nor stop myself from flitting from one flower of knowledge to another. Dweck’s analysis is spot on too.

    Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure

    I remember feeling imprisoned within the family’s definitions – I was the “smart one”, my sister was “the pretty one.” My sister, accordingly, felt like the stupid one, although she’s not – but she learned a lot about how to study and how to learn that I never did. Thanks for putting this into words!

  10. December 28th, 2009 at 8:01 pm

    becca says:

    I’ve got some nebulous thoughts floating around my brain on how this relates to the infamous impostor syndrome, but they will have to await a time I am not casting gels. But this is a great post.
    Someone should be there to tell all 99th percentile kids that there are ~30-40,000 other ones out there. Of course, I don’t know how many are 99th percentile across the board, but then, I never was. Damn math computation.
    It’s also important to have someone to remind you that when you start doing poorly compared to your peers at a new academic level, at each point it will in significant part because the bulk of the bottom part of that distribution dropped out below you. Having smarter peers is a good thing- if they are also willing to play nice you learn more and have more fun that way.

    Also Hakan- I wouldn’t be so sure about Obama. Judging from his autobiographical writings, he certainly “wasted” a lot of time pondering who he Really Was, and I’d be surprised if wondering about intelligence wasn’t part of that.

  11. December 28th, 2009 at 8:04 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    Well, here I have enjoyed the positive feedback, because it was something I accomplished and not something that I am.

  12. December 28th, 2009 at 11:16 pm

    Barn Owl says:

    Thanks for your well-written and honest post, Mike – I find it especially interesting because my experiences are quite different. As I mentioned in the comments section for one of Greg’s posts, I have no idea what my IQ is; I might have been tested in school, but I was never informed of the score. I was also raised by parents who think that childhood environment and experience have the greatest impact on intelligence and academic performance. Consequently, I read avidly and worked diligently to achieve good grades, with the initial goals of medical school and a career as a surgeon, upon entering university. At the same time, I worked in a pediatrician’s office and in hospitals, because I’d learned in childhood that competence, whether physical or intellectual, at various skills and tasks is an important part of any career, and of life in general.

    I’ve never thought that I could sail through anything because of a superior IQ, because I’ve never known my IQ score, and because I was not raised to think that I could just rest on the laurels of a superior intellect, even if I had one (which I don’t). Through persistence and hard work, I graduated magna cum laude with degrees in biology and anthropology; by that time, I had enough practical experience working in hospitals and in research labs to know that I preferred the latter. All throughout college, I heard from other students and from my professors, how brilliant they themselves were, or what a genius so-and-so was, or how Wondergirl was the most scintillating mathematics prodigy EVAH. “Wow, that’s great, now excuse me while I go tend to my tadpoles and embryos, or try to find a graduate student who can help me identify those pottery fragments from our dig, or write a paper on why I think a character in Wuthering Heights suffered from something like Marfan Syndrome.”

    I should have realized that I was in for listening to, and enduring, more of the same in graduate school: the boasts of “genius” and “superstar”, the intellectual lek displays and chest-thumping in journal clubs, and the not-so-subtle remarks like “You’re not so smart”, and “Your undergrad university isn’t that great”. Stubbornly, I kept working, and persisted such that I managed to get a PhD in a reasonable amount of time (5 years), earned postdoctoral fellowships, and published consistently throughout two postdoctoral stints. I’m certainly not well-known in my general field, but I’ve developed a few reagents that colleagues and collaborators use, and maybe someday one of them will do something brilliant and therapeutic with them. Currently, I’m happy with tenure, course directorships, writing and editing for other labs, and the prospect of developing and running a core research facility in the next year.

    At this point, I’m glad I’ve never known my IQ score – if it was high, then I might have been a slacker about learning and gaining competence, and if it was low, I might have given up my goals in despair. I think that not knowing my IQ might also make me more sensitive to the needs of my students … usually I tell them that if I could master this anatomy-embryology-neuroscience, so can they, and then proceed to show them some of the ways in which I set about learning the information, which can be intimidating in its sheer volume and detail. Almost all of them have had their brains probed by every standardized test known to humankind, so I figure that they’re probably pretty sick of being judged by such scores. I prefer to make no such judgments.

  13. December 29th, 2009 at 12:14 am

    Greg Laden says:

    A corollary: (or, actually, an extension) and playing off what Becca said in her comment .. Teaching undergraduates at Harvard was an interesting experience in this regard. Contrary to rumors you may have heard (and which were once true, most likely) Harvard actually admits top students (not students who sprang from the loins of former students). So I would run tutorials with six or eight sophomores each of which was the valedictorian of her high school, and it was often a higher-end private prep school (though usually just a public school). These students were for the first time sitting in a room where it was actually impossible (for the most part) to say who was smartest. They all excelled in some area or another, and while the occasional student would seem to shine, others were probably just dampening the lantern in some way, and since in many cases I knew these students for a three year period, I can say that is true.

    But the pressures of going from Valedictorian (or whatever) of the largest public high school in North Dakota (meaning you were the smartest 18 year old in the entire state, most likely .. not because North Dakotans are stupid … there just are not many of them) to being average was enormous.

    Thus, it is said, the very high suicide rate at that school. One of my students actually killed her roommate, her roommate’s lover, and herself. The academic pressure is thought to have been a factor.

  14. December 30th, 2009 at 3:34 am

    R. L. Mair says:

    My experience with IQ testing hasn’t been all bad. Like many who have posted, I tested in the 99th percentile and was several years ahead in my reading and language skills and managed to sail through the academics of elementary and high school, for the most part. I had the notion that I didn’t have to work hard at things I didn’t like, and my marks in some subjects suffered, but not enough to keep me from getting into university easily.

    So in some ways, I was a little overconfident. But in other ways, it kept me going. In grade 9, I had a school counsellor tell me that I wasn’t cut out for university despite my high marks because my dad was a tradesman and my mother hadn’t finished high school. Classism is something we Canadians don’t like to admit to, and that was the day I found out that not admitting to it wasn’t the same as not having it. Anyway, knowing how well I’d scored gave me a little something to fight back with, a reason not to listen to the authority figure, be a good little girl and take “general math”. I was the first in my family to go to university.

    After the first shock of finding that they actually expected me to bust my ass at university, I totally embraced being there. I think it was good for me to get my butt kicked that first semester. I did have a terrible personality conflict with a faculty member midway through my degree that could have gotten me tossed from my chosen program, but again, believing I had the ability to do the work and do it well kept me from just giving it up.

    Sometimes it’s a good thing to know you’re good at puzzles. It’s not the only thing, though. Balance is the key!

  15. January 5th, 2010 at 6:01 pm

    Observer says:

    ***Dweck had suspected that praise could backfire, but even she was surprised by the magnitude of the effect. “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control,” she explains. “They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.”***

    I think this is a good approach. Certainly at my boarding school people often avoided the appearance of putting much effort in. It was more respectable to do a minimum of work and get an ok grade than to work really hard & get a top grade (which would just suggest you were a geek or a ‘try hard’).

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