Thoughts on Mindsets for Education

“Change your mindset, change your life” is the motto I put forth in a speech I gave in February 2016 about mindsets. In this essay written on July 1, 2016, I will put forth thoughts about what distinguishes growth theorists from fixed theorists. I will also elucidate several points of confusion.

Chicken or the Egg?

What comes first? Success or a growth mindset? Research demonstrates that encouraging a growth mindset leads to success. However, many highly successful people clearly have a fixed mindset. How did they get where they are without growth mindset?

One possibility is that fixed mindset just isn’t that much of an inhibitor of success. Nevertheless, research shows that even if fixed mindset doesn’t do much to inhibit success, growth mindset does plenty to aid it.

Somewhat paradoxically, it may be possible that successful people with fixed mindset either have high innate abilities or are predisposed to persevere. They may be succeeding despite their fixed mindset, but adopting a growth mindset might enable them to enjoy even greater success.

Mindset is not a panacea. While fixed mindset is a limiting belief and growth mindset an empowering one, one can certainly fail despite holding a growth mindset. A common example is trying to do too many things at once. Growth mindset is no substitute for sustained practice. For example, all the growth mindset in the world won’t help you master piano if you only practice 20 minutes a week.

People who have a growth mindset are probably not going to have a performance-avoidance goal orientation. They are not afraid of looking “stupid” due to asking “stupid” questions. They are not afraid of making mistakes in front of their classmates. Being called a “noob” does not shame them, because they recognize that mastery is a journey and that their skills will grow over time.

That is not to say growth theorists cannot be perfectionists, but when they are, it is often in a healthy way, unlike the debilitating perfectionism that prevents one from getting anything done that may be more common among fixed theorists. Growth theorists may be very detail-oriented, but their fear of being “not good enough” is diminished. They are not afraid to brainstorm. They are not afraid to make many false starts. When others chide them for dabbling, it doesn’t faze them.

“Compared to Others”

Comparing ourselves to others, particularly with respect to “talent,” is a common yet often counter-productive pastime. The main reason it is counter-productive is that there is nothing we can do about our fixed level of “talent.” While intelligence and talent may be growable, conventional wisdom says otherwise. Therefore, we typically conceptualize these constructs as having a fixed upper ceiling at conception, birth, or maturation. While our talent, intelligence, and opportunities can be reduced and foreclosed, be it by exposure to teratogens in-utero or early in life, poor education or nutrition in childhood, or heavy drinking in adulthood, conventional wisdom says there is no way to increase them. Just as one can kill but not resurrect, one can lose intelligence but not gain it. This is quintessential to the concept of fixed mindset.

If we believe intelligence has a fixed ceiling, are we likely to maximize? Will we reach our personal “glass ceiling”? Probably not! In fact, believing one is “just not good” at something is a powerful impetus to cease and desist entirely! The students who believe they are “just not good” at math often don’t even try. They never even ascend to the level of mediocrity that is purportedly their glass ceiling.

Clearly, prioritizing doing the best we can with what we have is a more productive alternative to giving up entirely. Unfortunately, reaching our “personal best” is often derided in a cultural climate that promotes beating the competition. However, the silver lining of growth mindset is that even though your glass ceiling (which may be as imaginary as the construct of infinity) may be lower than people who were born with greater gifts, this does not mean others are going to use their gifts. In fact, they may be looking further up the pyramid at people even better endowed than them, leading them to thinking: “What’s the point?,” and squandering their gifts. This is not unlike winning a race because someone’s car broke down, or because the other team didn’t show up. Nevertheless, a win is a win. In this way, a growth theorist can have the best of both worlds. (Not caring about being “the best” and yet being “the best” anyway because other, more “capable” contenders self-sabotage due to fixed mindset.)

How Should Teachers Apply Growth Mindset?

It’s very hard to impart growth mindset on your students if you hold a fixed mindset for yourself. At the same time, having a growth mindset does not mean you believe it is necessary, nor even worthwhile, to aspire to be a polymath.

Focusing on sharpening our strengths is often a better approach than reinforcing weaknesses. For example, I am completely inept when it comes to Apple products, including iPhones, iPads, iMacs, and Macbooks. I have never owned one, and in times when I’ve had to use one, it took me a long time to figure out how to perform basic tasks, and I didn’t see the appeal at all. While I could dedicate immense time and effort to mastering Apple iOS and OSX, I would much rather dedicate this time to learning a specialized skill on Windows, Android, or the LAMP stack. While I don’t have a fixed mindset for Apple, I can be a growth theorist without desiring to pursue growth in this area.

How can a child have attention-deficit disorder yet be able to focus on a complicated video game for hours? Just because a child is failing in school does not mean he or she is lazy or unable. It may just mean that the curriculum or instruction environment fails to motivate. Let’s face it: Even postsecondary education often manages to completely demolish the fun or intrigue in otherwise seductive topics. Blaming the student is the easy way out.

While the student may be partially “at fault,” plenty of “blame” may also lie with administrative and institutional constraints, lack of support, the curriculum, the teacher, and the public at large. Working around this entails not condemning students as irreparably damaged, but catering to what they find interesting in a program of study. Strengthening these interests can lead to broader overall interest in school. Video game developers have been using these tactics for decades, while educators remain behind the curve.

Changing our internal dialog helps. Stop deriding yourself in your head. Be more supportive of yourself. When talking to students, don’t say one student is “smarter” than the rest. Don’t offer to “go easy” on someone because they are having a hard time. Encourage them to keep learning, practicing, and growing. Just because they are doing poorly now does not mean they cannot grow. In fact, other students may have enormous head starts due to better education relating to socio-economic status, or simply greater effort or more rigorous teachers in prior classes. Everyone does not enter a class at the same skill level. However, those entering with a lower skill level can catch up with diligent effort.

Encouraging growth mindset may be one of the best examples of differentiated instruction in action, simply by virtue of withholding summary judgment.

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