Since being introduced to the ideas found within Carol Dweck’s work on the Fixed and Growth Mindsets in July of 2018, I have had some time to reflect on how it has impacted my thinking and my practice as a parent and member of an educational community. You can find my initial post on the Growth Mindset here.
I have come to realize that I have been entrenched in a fixed mindset for much of my life. Internalizing and trying to live by the precepts expressed in Dweck’s work has been powerful and comforting to me as a learner, parent, and educator. When I consider the best way to spread the Growth Mindset gospel, I believe the first step is to fully accept and live out the Growth Mindset one’s self and model it as a way of approaching learning. For me, this means embracing learning. This can be as simple as consciously flipping the switch in your mind from off to on. Instead of approaching new, unfamiliar learning with the attitude that says: “This doesn’t apply to me; I don’t need to know this; I’m not going to bother,” we should accept that learning anything new is fascinating and is a great opportunity to broaden our perspective.
My own children have forced me to think a lot about the Growth Mindset lately. Both are brilliant and talented in their own ways (would you expect a parent to have any other opinion?), but one clearly embraces a Growth Mindset, while the other exhibits more fixed mindset tendencies like her father. I’ve thought a lot recently about why that is. I don’t have any definite answers, but I have made some insightful observations. School has always come easy for my son. He was placed in GT classes in first grade, and throughout middle school and high school, he received only one B. He is a senior this year and has been accepted to Rice University. Thinking back on his secondary education, the thing I find interesting is that he didn’t seem to stress much about his grades. I think he knew they would be fine. When he worked on projects, he would get absorbed in the learning, and he thrilled at ways to reveal his quirky personality through the assignment. He loves puzzles and just seems to approach any mental challenge as something fun to work out.
My daughter is also a straight A student. She works hard to maintain a strong GPA, but she does so more by collecting dots. As an example, when studying for an AP World History test recently, she was rattling off facts about Mesopotamia. Her knowledge was impressive, but when I asked her what current country occupies this region, she replied with something like “we don’t have to know that,” or “that won’t be on the test.” I died a little inside at that moment. Her reply revealed that she was only interested in regurgitating what the teacher told her was important. She wasn’t trying to connect dots.
Knowing what I know now about the Growth Mindset, I have concerns for both of my kids. My son, who has received praise for his intelligence by well-meaning relatives, friends, teachers and (I hate to admit it) his parents, will soon be challenged like he has never been challenged before. Having spent a childhood being told how smart he is, how will he handle it when the work is extremely difficult? I hope his growth mindset is strong enough to see him through the challenges of university work. Lately, I have taken every opportunity to shift my praise to his work ethic and process rather than his intelligence.
For my daughter, I have been stressing the power of “yet.” When she struggles with a concept, as is sometimes the case in Algebra II, I reassure her that not grasping it yet doesn’t mean she won’t; we just need to try some different approaches and perhaps seek out some help from her mom and brother who are far more equipped to help her at math. I think the tendency to collect dots is a defense mechanism for many students.
Observing the profound differences in mindsets of my children, I ask myself what accounts for this difference? After all, they were raised similarly with access to the same resources. Yet, one is more likely to embrace challenges and persist in the face of setbacks while the other puts a premium on looking smart, which causes her to avoid challenges and ignore negative feedback. I will leave the answer to this question to the researchers and psychologists, but I do intend to combat the Fixed Mindset and stimulate the Growth Mindset every chance I get as a learner, parent and educator.
After modeling the Growth Mindset myself, I think the next most important thing I can do as an educator is to de-emphasize grades. When a grade is eliminated (preferably) or de-emphasized (practically) I have the power to fully implement the concept of “Yet.” “Yet” means removing the consuming pressure kids feel to get good marks and look smart. “Yet” means every child is capable of learning; it just means we must work on it and try different resources. And it is the working on it—the process—that will be praised in my educational community, not how quickly someone understood a concept.
If the effort and the progress are what is stressed in a learning environment, the tendency to cheat to look smart is diminished. Moving forward, I will be modeling persistence and rewarding effort and process in learning over grades. I will encourage my educational community to recognize the difference between fixed and growth mindset thinking, and when they recognize they are employing fixed mindset thinking to rebuff it with a growth mindset.
Dweck. C (2016) Mindset The New Psychology of Success Updated Edition Ballantine Books