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Many of the challenges we deal with on a daily basis – whether in the practice room, while teaching, at work, or in life in general, don’t have easy or obvious solutions. And sure, sometimes Google can help, but often, the answer is something we have to figure out for ourselves.

I imagine we’ve all had moments of inspired genius, as well as times when we get stuck and no matter what we try, keep going around in circles.

But have you ever noticed how some people seem gifted with the ability to come up with creative, strategic, “Wow, I wish I would have thought of that” type solutions on a regular basis, while others work really hard at the problem, but keep running up against a wall?

What’s different about the person who comes up with a crafty technique to make the left-hand pizzicato passage speak more clearly, or discovers a modified bow grip that makes downbow staccato more effortless, or devises an ingenious fingering in that tricky spot in the first movement of the Ravel piano trio? 

And whatever it is, might it be something that we could all learn?

What leads to more effective problem-solving?

A team of researchers (Chen, Powers, Katragadda, Cohen, & Dweck, 2020) conducted a series of studies to see if they could identify what it is that leads some people to problem-solve more effectively than others.

Midway through Fall semester, 365 college student volunteers were asked to answer a series of questions about the degree to which they think strategically in response to challenges. Questions like, “Whenever you feel like you are not making progress, how often do you ask yourself: ‘Is there a better way of doing this?’”

They also asked the students how often they used higher-level “metacognitive strategies” – strategies like mapping out their goals and the steps that would be required to reach them, monitoring their study progress and evaluating the effectiveness of their approach to learning, making adjustments, and so on.

So was there any relationship between students’ strategic mindset scores, use of metacognitive strategies, and academic performance?

Strategic thinking = more success

Essentially, yes, in that participants who scored higher on the strategic mindset scale were more likely to utilize metacognitive strategies.

And the greater their use of these metacognitive strategies, the better their grades were at the end of Fall semester (and the following Winter semester as well).

So it seems that there’s something about having a strategic mindset that is linked to more strategic behavior and successful performance. Which is pretty cool – but is this mindset something that can be taught? I mean, if it’s not something we can learn, this is all kind of meaningless, right?

Can this mindset be taught?

In a follow-up study, the researchers randomly divided 134 participants into two groups – a strategic mindset group, and a control group.

The strategic mindset group read an article (page 37, here) with inspiring anecdotes and research about how strategic thinking is the key to success. Meanwhile, the control group read an article about the mental health benefits of taking cold showers (if you’re so inclined, that’s on page 41, here).

Then, the participants were asked to participate in what they were led to believe was an unrelated second study – one that involved a relatively unfamiliar task. Specifically, cracking eggs, and separating the yolks from the egg whites as quickly as possible.

Before beginning the egg challenge, participants were given 5 minutes and 8 practice eggs, shown one strategy for separating eggs, and told they could practice if they wanted to.

Then they were given 2 minutes to separate as many eggs whites and yolks as possible, with a prize of $100 at stake for the participant who could collect the greatest volume of egg whites in the provided container.

Following the egg challenge, they were asked to rate the strategic-ness of their thought process as they competed for the prize, with questions like “As I went about the egg cracking task, I continuously evaluated what was going right or wrong in the way I was doing things.” (1=not at all true; 5=very true)

So how did things pan out for the two groups?

Practice and performance benefits of the strategic mindset

Well, the main finding is that the strategic mindset does seem to be something that can be learned.

Participants who read the strategic mindset article (strategic mindset group) were significantly more likely to engage in strategic thinking during the egg challenge than those who read the cold shower article (control), which in turn led to better performance.

Those in the strategic group were also 2.4 times more likely to practice the egg separating task before doing it for real. And on average, they put in more practice repetitions than those in the control group too.

So what can we take away from all of this?

Takeaways

The next time you run into a tricky problem in the practice room (or anywhere else, for that matter), that doesn’t seem to be responding to your default set of strategies, pause for a moment and ask yourself a few questions:

  1. What are some things I can do to help myself?
  2. How else could I do this?
  3. Is there a way to do this even better?

See if these questions lead to any fresh new ideas to experiment with, that might help get you unstuck, and take that next tiny step forward!

And maybe try these out with your students too! Not just in lessons, but in their practice time away from lessons too. After all, as these and other studies suggest, it’s often not so much that we don’t have the knowledge we need to solve our problems, but more that we kind of get caught up in using whatever strategies come to mind first, and don’t access the full range of the information we have within us as often as we could. Your students might be more effective problem-solvers than they realize – an insight that can be pretty empowering, and a big confidence-booster too.


References

Chen, P., Powers, J. T., Katragadda, K. R., Cohen, G. L., & Dweck, C. S. (2020). A strategic mindset: An orientation toward strategic behavior during goal pursuit. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(25), 14066–14072. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2002529117