by Chris Williamson
Stanford Professor Carol Dweck wrote Mindset: The New Psychology of Success in 2007. I had the opportunity to hear her speak a few years ago and have shared her concepts before, including when sharing ideas from her protégé Jess Lahey (author of the counter-intuitive book Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail). I was recently reminded of Dweck’s notions of “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset” when someone sent me the link to Kahn Academy originator Salman Khan’s blog post about growth mindset, including a short (1:30) video:
I recommend reading the article and not just watching the video – in part because at the end you are rewarded with the affirmation that you have just increased your own “growth mindset.” The notion is that intelligence is not “fixed.” We can learn (literally grow smarter) throughout our lives. This happens faster and most effectively when we encounter challenges and work through them. Appropriate difficulty that stretches us, in other words, is better than attempting work with quick and easy solutions.
Applewild is a “growth mindset” place, for our students and for our teachers. We have the luxury with our student population of being able to calibrate the challenge to students’ preparedness for that level of work. That is why it is actually important that students are sometimes uncomfortable as they are learning. They need to be outside of their “comfort bubble” in order to develop best as learners. I often compare this to learning to high jump. It is important to set the bar low sometimes to assure the feeling of successfully clearing it, but it is essential to practice at or near the personal best to refine technique. In fact, coaches will sometimes put the bar 4 – 6 inches above the personal best and have the high jumper stand at the approach and visualize clearing that height, then try a height somewhat below. The jumper comes to believe that higher heights are possible with effort.
Growth Mindset, Praise, and Conferences
To reinforce “growth mindset,” it is important to explicitly and specifically praise the effort, the willingness to persevere, the struggle (i.e. “I liked how you kept working on that math problem.”; “You really thought carefully about your word choices in this piece of writing.”). That encourages “growth mindset.” Praising children for being “smart” or “talented” promotes a “fixed mindset” understanding of one’s ability (i.e. “You are a good math student.”; “You are a really good writer.”). The latter suggests that intelligence and talent are immutable – “fixed.”
When students who have been conditioned to see their ability as “fixed” encounter challenging work, as we all do at various points in our lives, they are less likely to have developed the personal resources (what Lahey refers to as “autonomy” and “competence”) that enable them to keep trying. Too much rigor is defeating for most people, but little to no difficulty quickly becomes enervating. It ultimately can lead to incapacitating the very students who find school easy early on. They sometimes become focused on the grade – the external judgment – and not on the process of learning. If the grades go down, they think there is something wrong with them. If they haven’t attempted to clear higher heights, they are incapacitated when they confront them.