Phil Araoz: Efficacy Approach is desperately needed in schools

In 2007, when school superintendent Romaine Dallemand came to Rochester, he introduced the Efficacy Approach to our public school system. It's the best thing that has happened to Rochester schools for a long time.

The Efficacy Approach helps students change the way they think about learning, which makes them better students. It's built around a large body of research that shows that the traits that make people successful in life are acquired. They are learned. They are skills that can be taught. Much of the research is summarized in books designed for the general public, including "Mindset," by Carold Dweck, "NurtureShock," by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, "Outliers," by Malcolm Gladwell, and others.

Every subject is a skill. Mastering it takes practice. It sounds simple, but the implications are profound. Simply knowing that mastery is possible makes you work harder. Setbacks and failures become feedback — information that is used to improve. This approach is called the "growth mindset" and it is tied closely to success.

For example, Babe Ruth began his baseball career as a pitcher, and as such wasn't expected to hit well. According to Ty Cobb, being a pitcher gave Ruth the freedom to master hitting. Cobb said of Ruth, "He could experiment at the plate... As time went on he learned more and more about how to control that big swing... By the time he became a full-time outfielder, he was ready."

This growth mindset motivates students to raise their hand when they have a question. It causes them to analyze their test results to figure out what they understand and what they don't — and to do this whether they got an A or an F. It makes students constantly re-evaluate their learning strategies. Most of all, it makes learning fun. Because when you see improvement it creates passion.


This is what the Efficacy Approach teaches, both to students and teachers. It's desperately needed, because the opposite of the growth mindset is so devastating. The opposite mindset is the belief that the ability to learn something is intrinsic to the person. They either have it or they don't. Struggles and difficulties are therefore proof that a student just "doesn't have what it takes" to do well in school or sports or music or whatever.

This approach is called the "fixed mindset." It makes students afraid of showing weakness because weakness is a permanent label. When things get difficult they give up. If they do try harder, they try the same method over and over because it doesn't occur to them to try something different. They may deliberately fail tests as to avoid being proven inadequate. If they are good at something, they are insecure and constantly afraid of being exposed as a fraud. The fixed mindset is crippling.

Unfortunately, the fixed mindset is by far the more common mindset in our society, including our schools. Think back to when you were a child and ask yourself at what point you knew that you were either a smart kid, an average kid, or a slow kid. Where did those labels come from?

But more than anyone else, we parents give our kids fixed mindset messages, often with good intentions. If I tell me son "You got an 'A'! You're so smart!" I've just tied his intrinsic characteristics to one test result. He may feel good for a moment, but he'll also come away thinking that if he does poorly on the next test, he wasn't really that smart after all. As a parent, I'm better off saying, "What did you do to get such a good grade?"

It's amazing that such simple things can make such a big difference. But they do.

Some critics of the school district's Efficacy training suggest that the money could be better used for other things, such as hiring more teachers. But the money being used for Efficacy training is money that state law requires must go for district-wide staff training. It can't be spent on anything else.

Other critics question whether it's true that anyone can learn anything. They say that "intelligence" can't be learned. But research shows that most of the things we associate with "intelligence" are really skills that improve with practice — like vocabulary and problem solving. Studies attempting to tie raw brain power to heredity give mixed results. The studies that do suggest there's an inherited component show that the effect increases with age, suggesting that what we're calling "intelligence" is really a predisposition to practice.

But if you want to find out more for yourself, there are free Efficacy training sessions available for parents. There's free pizza ahead of time and children are welcome. To register for the next session call Savita at 282-9951 or e-mail


See for yourself.

Phil Araoz is a Rochester medical doctor who is involved with the Olmsted County GOP Party. His column appears monthly.

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