How can we help children to learn?
This thesis began with a question: How can we help children to learn? I examined this question by testing four distinct factors proposed to influence learning: number awareness, mindset, stereotyping and conscientiousness. Beginning with the effects of number awareness (Chapter 1), I focused on the approach of helping young children to understand the symbolic meaning of numbers. This idea was inspired by the study of Ramani and Siegler (2008) which tested whether playing a board game (e.g. snakes and ladders) in which their “player” was identified with a number would improve children’s understanding of numbers and their numerical performance. I attempted to replicate this study in China but found no effect. Children who played the number board game did not show significant improvements in the post-manipulation numerical tests compared to children who played the coloured board game. I also noticed that children in my study showed a better baseline performance in counting and identification tests compared to children in the original study (in the U.S.). Therefore, I concluded that the board game manipulation was not helpful for raising number awareness among Chinese children. I then searched the literature for other manipulations that might help children on learning. The most prominent manipulation was based on mindset theory (Dweck, 2006), which measured whether children believe their intelligence is malleable or fixed (Chapter 2). Therefore, the second major theme, occupying most of the thesis, consisted of eight studies on mindset. In this vein, I firstly used both a mindset manipulation and a self-reported mindset scale to test whether having a growth mindset would improve children’s cognitive performance after a challenge (Chapter 3). Children were firstly asked to solve a set of moderate difficulty cognitive problems, and then they were given a mindset manipulation: the experimenter either praised children for being smart (fixed mindset manipulation) or for working hard (growth mindset manipulation) on these problems (Mueller & Dweck, 1998). Following the mindset manipulation, the children were asked to work on a set of even more difficult problems (failure), and they were given negative feedback on their performance. This was followed by a final set of problems with moderate difficulty. I failed to find a consistent association between the growth mindset manipulation and improvement in children’ postchallenge performance. The only nominally significant effect of growth mindset manipulation was found in my first study, but disappeared in the other two studies. I next tested whether children’s own mindsets would be associated with their postfailure performance or school grades. Again, I failed to find a significant association between children’s own mindsets and their post-failure performance or school grades. I then tested whether growth mindset would be associated with better grades only across a challenging transition or growth mindset would be beneficial only for children who encountered the greatest challenge when entering university (Chapter 4). Similar to my previous studies, I failed to find any significant effect of growth mindset on grades, either across a challenging transition (from high school to university), in any subsequent year in university, nor among children who encountered the greatest challenge when entering university. Finally, I explored whether children obtained their own mindsets from their parents’ growth mindsets or parents’ failure mindsets (Chapter 5). I found that children’s own mindsets were significantly associated with their perceptions of parents’ failure mindsets. However, these perceptions were biased by their own mind. Therefore, I concluded that mindset theory was not influential in the learning process, children might obtain their mindsets from their parents’ failure mindsets, and children’s perceptions of their parents’ failure mindsets were biased. I also suggested that mindset manipulation has its limitations and suggested that rather than addressing mindset, addressing attitudes to hard work may be a viable direction. Next, I conducted a series of five studies to test a recent claim regarding the early origins of negative gender stereotypes about brilliance (Bian, Leslie, & Cimpian, 2017), that is proposed to reduce girls’ interests in science-related subjects (Chapter 6). Consequently, the negative stereotypes would impair girls’ academic performance and increase the gender gap in science-related subjects. I tested children’ gender stereotypes about brilliance, kindness, and dullness, by presenting vignettes of people who were very high in these characteristics in both China and the U.K. (Chapter 7). I asked children to identify which person in two male and two female images presented to them was the person described in the vignette. The gender of the person chosen was used as an indicator of stereotyping. I failed to find the existence of a gender stereotype that brilliance was a male trait among Chinese children, but did find it among British children. For niceness, I did find that both Chinese and British children have a gender stereotype towards women. For dullness, both Chinese and British children hold a gender stereotype towards men. The final theme in this thesis was followed by the mindset theme, which consisted of four studies testing whether conscientiousness (i.e., attitudes towards hard work) would be associated with children’ grades in both primary school and high school (Chapter 8). I found that conscientiousness was a significant and consistent predictor of grades in both primary school and high school. I also tested whether teachers’ conscientiousness would be associated with children’s grades. However, children’s perceptions of their teachers’ conscientiousness were not associated with children’s grades. Thus, I concluded that conscientiousness was a powerful predictor of grades, but teachers’ conscientiousness might not be. In the final chapter (Chapter 9) of this thesis, I concluded the main findings in the thesis, discussed the implications for each theory I explored, and made suggestions for further studies in the studied areas.