When people feel like they can experience success in a situation, they have more reason to put forth the effort to do so. If they feel like a situation is hopeless, or out of their control, why bother? This is the concept behind Attribution Theory. In other words, if I work hard (internal) at this, will I succeed? Or should I not bother because I know my boss never likes anything I do (external)?
This is why Carol Dweck is so popular in education circles. Dweck states that “individuals who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others) have a growth mindset. They tend to achieve more than those with a more fixed mindset (those who believe their talents are innate gifts). This is because they worry less about looking smart and they put more energy into learning.”
Basically, people with a growth mindset use an internal locus of control to explain their successes and failures. Therefore, they are more motivated to put forth the effort needed to learn.
In my post “I Believe in 28 out of 36 of You” I discussed Bandura and his research which shows how beliefs impact action. And that people with self-efficacy set their sights higher, try harder, persevere longer, and show more resilience in the face of failure. Sounds pretty internal, right? Not much to attribute to external forces there.
So when we talk about students and goals, how we frame the conversation has a profound impact not only on our perceived ability in their success, but also their own perceived ability in their success, which ultimately creates the conditions to internally and externally impact their success.
If we say 28 out of 36 students will pass, we can easily attribute the eight failures to external causes such as poverty or already being academically deficient when they walked in the door. But when our goal is for all students to increase their score by 20 points, external factors don’t carry the same weight. The goal requires an intentional, unrelenting focus on internal causes … on effort and belief and efficacy … for every student to feel and achieve success.