Around kitchen tables, in school hallways, from the sidelines of playing fields, the exhortations ring out: “You can do it!” “The sky’s the limit!” “Go for the gold!”
Raising the aspirations of children—especially those who are economically disadvantaged—has been a popular prescription for many years, and it’s not hard to see why. What could be wrong with encouraging kids to set their sights high?
But “what has been missing,” write a group of British researchers in a report released last month, “is any evidence that the recommended initiatives actually lead to the outcomes assumed by the policy.” The report, produced for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, reviewed programs designed to bolster students’ goals for the future.
“The widespread emphasis on raising aspirations,” the team concludes, “does not seem to be a good foundation for policy or practice.” What we need, they add, is “a shift in emphasis from ‘raising aspirations’ to ‘keeping aspirations on track.’”
The problem, in other words, is not one of low expectations—in fact, the report found that low-income families already have high hopes for their kids. Rather, the issue is finding a way around the practical barriers that stand in the way of anyone chasing a dream. And our frequent cries of “You can do it!” may actually be part of the problem. In a series of intriguing experiments recently published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers demonstrated that posing this sentiment as a question, rather than a declaration, led to more goal-directed behavior in the subjects they studied.