As University of Maryland College of Education Assistant Professor Lucas P. Butler writes in a perspective article in Science magazine, recent research suggests that infants can learn the value of effort and persistence simply by watching an adult try hard to achieve something.
“It appears that even one-year-old infants can learn the value of hard work simply by watching an adult engage in persistence on the way to success. This suggests a potentially powerful learning mechanism for shaping how children approach challenging situations,” said Dr. Butler.
Noting the debate of the relative importance of effort versus talent in an individual’s success, Dr. Butler’s perspective article highlights recent research that shows that a focus on hard work rather than talent, as well as a willingness to see failure as learning opportunities, may predict academic and life success. Past research has also shown that teaching students to focus on effort and view setbacks as learning opportunities shows promise in improving individual achievement.
Yet, previous research had not directly tackled the question of whether these beliefs about hard work and setbacks were more akin to a heritable personality trait, or whether they might be rooted in young children’s experiences. A new study in Science magazine’s September 22, 2017 issue led by Massachusetts Institute of Technology Researcher Julia A. Leonard demonstrates the social origins of persistence, by showing that infants who observe an adult trying hard to achieve a goal try harder to achieve a goal themselves.
Dr. Leonard and her research team conducted several experiments designed to investigate whether one-year-old children could learn the value of persistent effort by observing an adult try hard to achieve a result themselves. Infants observed adults try hard before they were able to open a container or retrieve a toy from a carabiner; by observing this behavior, infants tried harder to play music on a disabled toy compared to infants who saw an adult achieve success effortlessly.
“What’s notable about Dr. Leonard’s study is that it suggests that even in infancy, persistence is fundamentally rooted in the social context,” Dr. Butler explained. “Rather than infants simply imitating adults’ behavior with a particular object, infants made a much broader inference about the importance of hard work, and they persisted in their exploration of a novel toy, even when they were unsuccessful.”
“These findings could pave the way for a broad range of research on how social cues and observations influence children’s approach to challenge and beliefs about effort and success,” said Dr. Butler.
Dr. Butler is a faculty member in the College of Education’s Department of Human Development and Quantitative Methodology, and co-directs the Cognition and Development Lab. His research focuses on social learning, social cognition and cognitive development in early childhood.