Educators like me, who can’t sleep at night because we’re obsessed with the kids who are not learning in our classrooms and who do not see the point or the purpose of our schools, rejoice in the work of Carol Dweck. The Stanford University's growth mindset guru, researcher, and recent recipient of the American Psychological Association Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions, is a topic of conversation amongst many of my colleagues and in my education leadership classroom.
Why? Because Dweck asks the same question that we do, “ Why do schools assign tasks that reinforce a student’s self-perception that he or she is not smart.” Surely we do not want to make students feel bad about themselves. Yet, instead of perpetuating the right kind of mindset amongst the adults at our schools, we perpetuate learned helplessness amongst our students.
As a point of reference, Dweck’s work is inspired by a classic psychological experiment performed in the late 1960s in which animals in one group could stop administered shocks by pressing a lever, whereas animals in another group could not stop the shocks despite pressing the lever. Later, when the powerless animals were eventually presented with a working lever, they didn’t bother to push it. The animals had learned to be helpless. That famous experiment revealed a lot about the human psyche. Primarily how humans cope with adversity and how their beliefs about adversity can affect their success. Dweck says. “Do people assume that the situation they’re in is uncontrollable and give up, or do they continue to believe that they can have an impact on outcomes?” A psychologist at Stanford University and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, she has found that mindsets provide clues about why people fail or succeed in school, sports, and relationships. Her insightful research and incisive theorizing concerning perceptions and interpretations of success and failure across many domains of human endeavor, but especially in the realm of academic achievement, has informed many educators who study strategies that address persistence in students facing apparent failure.
Dr. Dweck’s findings have led her to recommend that students should be praised for effort rather than intelligence. She asserts that if students believe their intelligence is something they can develop, they’re much more likely to take risks and be resilient than students who believe their intelligence is fixed. In a recent presentation, she stated that, “If people believe that their willpower is limited they show much poorer self-control than people who believe that their willpower is a large, self-generating resource.” What can be gleaned from Dr. Dweck’s seminal work? First and foremost, recognizing and celebrating the process a student engages in, opposed to the end result, enhances motivation and learning. The difference, as subtle as it might appear to be, between “That’s a really good score. You must be really smart at this,” and, “That’s a really good score. You must have tried really hard,” is the differnence between encouraging and discouraging future learning. Dweck found that students who were praised for their intelligence did not want to take on a challenging task afterward. They wanted to play it safe. Their confidence plummeted and they later lied about their scores. That suggested that when someone praises your intelligence, that’s what becomes valuable. You can’t admit that you’ve turned in a poor performance.
Dr. Dweck does not limit her attention to the pressing issue of educating all students, she applies her framework to the Middle East conflict too. She believes that the conflict can be illuminated with this framework, and found that when she and her team trained both Israelis and Palestinians in a “growth mindset,” despite the notion that their beleifs are inherent and unchangeable, they showed lower levels of hatred toward each other and greater willingness to compromise for peace. Given that, it is certainly not far-fetched to think that all children can learn at high levels and succeed in school.
Back to domestic problems. Dr. Dweck reminds followers that a Growth Mindset isn’t just about effort. She concedes that effort is a key to student achievement, but she reminds us that it is not the only thing. She implores students to try new strategies and seek input from others when their efforts stall. Learning is the goal. So if students are not learning, they need to be strategic about how to get there. But many students are not active learners and don’t always know how to be strategic. That is why praising effort, not intelligence, can help keep them in the game. In a practical sense, it amounts to a teacher (and every adult in a child’s life) talking to striving but unsuccessful students about what they have tried, and what they can try next.
What is most critical is ensuring that educators and parents alike fully understand Dr. Dweck’s Mindset Concepts. She has spoken extensively on the misapplication of her concepts. Among them, the most common are trying to boost students’ self-esteem by praising just effort; trying to make children feel better by saying, “Everyone is smart!,” explaining students’ failure by saying they have a fixed mindset, and treating children’s mistakes as problematic or harmful rather than pathways to success.
Dr. Dweck is on record for saying that children can actually be pushed toward a fixed mindset (as opposed to a growth mindset) about their intelligence. In a recent article in Education Week, she said, “Must it always come back to finding a reason why some children just can’t learn, as opposed to finding a way to help them learn? Teachers who understand the growth mindset do everything in their power to unlock that learning.” Examining her model critically, she wonders whether she and her colleagues put too much emphasis on sheer effort, making it sound as though developing a growth mindset is easy. In the same article, she also said, “Maybe we talked too much about people having one mindset or the other, rather than portraying people as mixtures. We are on a growth-mindset journey, too.” The challenge for educators is how to move to a deeper understanding of the growth mindset. According to Dr. Dweck, it’s as easy as A, B, C. She suggests that we acknowledge that (a) We’re all a mixture of fixed and growth mindsets, (b) We will probably always be that way, and (c) If we want to move closer to a growth mindset in our thoughts and practices, we need to stay in touch with our fixed-mindset thoughts and deeds. She goes on to say that, “Two sure routes to a false growth-mindset are to stigmatize and “ban” the fixed mindset and to attach high stakes to children’s mindset status. Adults also need to be aware of own their triggers.”
When faced with challenges: “Do you feel overly anxious? Does a voice in your head warn you away?”
When you have a teaching setback, or when students aren’t listening or learning: “Do you feel incompetent or defeated? Do you look for an excuse?
When we’re criticized: “Do you become defensive, angry, or crushed instead of interested in learning from the feedback?”
Watching an educator who’s better at something we value: “Do you feel envious and threatened, or do you feel eager to learn?
We as education leaders, “Accept those thoughts and feelings and work with and through them,” she says. “And keep working with and through them.”
One final thought:
On Dr. Dweck’s latest work on willpower. Studies have shown that if you administer glucose to people, it prevents the depletion effect that many claim is reponsible for willpower. This phenomenon, then, has been depicted as a deep-seated biological process, just part of who we are. Dr. Dweck’s team found that glucose boosted performance only for people who believed that willpower was limited. People who didn’t think willpower was limited didn’t show a depletion effect after a strenuous task and didn’t need sugar to keep going strong. Those people may feel fatigued, but they don’t think that means they can’t work hard. So in the end it comes down to a mindset: "You can only do it if you beleive you can do it."