Creating Intellectual Risk Takers

Julia Spandorfer, C’17, on child development and critical feedback.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

By Blake Cole

There has been significant research on how parents and teachers can best support child development with positive, encouraging feedback. But what about critical feedback, or a combination of the two? Julia Spandorfer, C’17, suggests that critical feedback makes a measurable contribution to childhood learning and willingness to take intellectual risks. Her senior thesis, “How Can I Improve?: Character Strengths and Openness to Negative Feedback in Childhood,” researches children’s openness to critical feedback and draws connections to maturity and character strengths.

Spandorfer conducted her research via questionnaire using a system to measure qualities deemed character strengths. “I was interested in whether, given the option, people would choose to receive feedback on their highest scoring character strength or their lowest scoring character strength.” Aversion to critical feedback, in children and adults, may indicate a fear of failure and resistance to challenges.

Spandorfer, who had already conducted research on anxiety and mood disorders, first used a test group consisting of adults only. Participants were asked about qualities associated 24 unique character strengths—including honesty, bravery, zest, kindness, and love of learning—and graded themselves on a scale where “1 is not at all like me” and “5 is very much like me.” For example, when it came to the character strength of creativity, the questionnaire used the phrase: “I enjoy creating things that are new and different.” After participants completed the questionnaire, they were asked whether they wanted to hear about one of their highest scoring character strengths, or whether they wanted to hear about one of the lowest scoring character strengths.

“The key finding was that the crucial character strengths of honesty, judgement, and, at a marginal level, perseverance, were correlated with asking for mostly negative feedback,” says Spandorfer, whose thesis won the John P. Sabini Senior Thesis Award for the Study of Emotion, Character, and Responsibility. “So the people who scored high on those strengths wanted to hear mostly about where they could improve rather than where they were already doing well.”

Spandorfer then moved forward with a similarly sized test group of children. What she found was the complete opposite of what she predicted. “I figured that the results from the test group of adults would be predictive of children asking for mostly negative feedback, as well, but children across the board not only scored themselves higher on almost all character strengths, they also asked for way more positive than negative feedback,” says Spandorfer.

Spandorfer hypothesizes that this may be due to the developmental process of egocentrism, where children tend to believe that they are unique and that others see them the way they see themselves. She says the results from the adult test group might be due to the fact that adults better understand the value of asking for critical feedback in different contexts as they've gone through college and the work force.

 “The take-home message is that it's important for children to get more practice asking for critical feedback,” says Spandorfer. “We can accomplish this by building safe contexts where children can receive feedback in a non-threatening way.” If parents and teachers can create that kind of environment, young people may better understand the value of that kind of information and begin to seek it out.

Spandorfer’s advisor for the research was Angela Duckworth, Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Psychology and a 2013 MacArthur “Genius” Fellow. Duckworth is well known for her research on perseverance and self-control. She is the founder and CEO of Character Lab, a nonprofit whose mission is to advance the science and practice of character development, and conducts research at Penn’s Positive Psychology Center, a program named after a field trailblazed by Martin Seligman, Zellerbach Family Professor of Psychology. Duckworth’s 2016 book, Grit, has enjoyed prolific coverage in both the media and academic circles. “Professor Duckworth cares a lot about the growth and development of everyone in her lab, even the students who are there for just a year,” says Spandorfer, who also credits Duckworth's post-doctoral fellow Peter Meindl and the professor's research coordinator Abigail Quirk for their advisory roles. “She was really invested in everyone.”

Spandorfer, who recently graduated, has accepted a position as a research coordinator in the Anxiety and Complicated Grief Program at the New York University Medical Center.