Why Kids (and Adults) Need Struggle Stories

When we turn heroes into superheroes, you know, superficially it can seem inspiring. But it can actually be discouraging because we feel what they achieved is just out of my reach.
— Shankar Vendantam, NPR Social Science Correspondent
The work behind the writing - How telling struggle stories can affect kids' interest in math, science, hard work and genius

The work behind the writing - How telling struggle stories can affect kids' interest in math, science, hard work and genius

This summer I had the pleasure of T.A.ing Bethany Hegedus' non-fiction picture book course at The Writing Barn in Austin.

When you write a non-fiction book, particularly for children, you end up shaping the story by what you leave out as much as by what you put in. Writing is hard work, and it can be tempting to leave out the hard stuff and the tedious stuff. 

But it turns out there's very good evidence - scientific evidence - to support why telling struggle stories can help people achieve.

The Science Behind the Struggle

An educational psychologist at Columbia University, Xiadong Lin-Siegler, was raised in China, where she learned about scientists through their hard work. When she moved to the U.S., she found that students here learned about scientists through the lens of their genius. She wondered if that perspective shaped students' approach to math and science. Spoiler - It did. 

When kids read about genius, they assume that certain achievements are beyond their personal abilities - in Lin-Siegler's experiment, these kids then scored significantly lower. But the kids who read about struggle? They improved their science grades significantly. 

At a book launch this weekend, local author and engineer Christina Soontornvat spoke of testing and redesigning in both engineering and writing. She admitted her new book, The Changelings, took ten years and more than 30 drafts. She talked to children about the struggle. And in doing so, she reminded them that achievement comes through hard work. It was a message that resonated with adult writers too - this one especially. 

The most interesting discovery is people who read struggle stories improved their science grades significantly than people who read achievement story.
— Xiadong Lin-Siegler, Educational Psychologist, Columbia University

Check out the Morning Edition interview about Lin-Siegler's "struggle study" here

And catch Shankar Vendantam's podcast - Hidden Brain - to explore other patterns in human behavior. 

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