Tuesday, August 07, 2007

MINDSET: The New Psychology of Success

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck, Ph. D. arrived Saturday morning (along with Diary of a Spider by Doreen Cronin) from Amazon. I started reading it soon after and finished it Sunday night. That should tell you that it's not a difficult read.

The main premise is the contrast between the fixed mindset and the growth mindset -- not just in students, but in all people. Implications of this in sports, business, and relationships are explored before focusing on education and parenting.

Fixed mindset is the belief that traits such as talent and intelligence occur naturally in some people and not in others. People in the fixed mindset believe that they either "have it" or they don't. And they scorn effort toward improvement, because they think that people with natural talent shouldn't need to work hard. This is why some students who do well all through school with a minimum of effort fall apart later in their academic careers when they suddenly don't get straight-As without studying. The message often comes from parents and the praise they give, telling a child he is so smart or she is so artistic or athletic. The problem occurs when a child has a setback and fears that the parent will no longer think these good things about them. The child, in his or her own mind, suddenly goes from smart to dumb, athletic to clumsy, and so forth.

Growth mindset is the belief that talent, intelligence, and other such traits can be achieved through hard work, and that they are accessible to almost anyone. Certainly, some students may struggle due to handicaps or learning differences, but usually what is required, even for them, is just extraordinary effort. A key finding was that when students could be taught how to move from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset, to learn about how the brain grows inside as it learns, they believed they could get smarter and they were willing to put in the effort necessary to improve their achievement. Often, math scores were used to measure such growth, since mathematical work requires growth and learning in a sequential, step-by-step manner that builds on earlier learning. Another important observation was how people with a growth mindset handle stressful events such as failure, rejection, and even shyness. (There are shy people of both mindsets.) Incidentally, students with a growth mindset steadily improved their math scores while students with a fixed mindset stayed the same or declined.

People with the growth mindset did not fear challenges, because these presented opportunities for growth and learning, which these individuals saw as a good thing. People with the fixed mindset feared challenges, because if they failed at a task, it would expose their (perceived) lack of intelligence or talent. As this is how they defined their value, this could be a crushing experience. This is why you will sometimes see a child who claims to be smarter than others, who brags he or she can do harder things than others, but who refuses to actually make good on these claims. Somewhere along the line, they have internalized the message that their value lies in some fixed ability or trait. And if they fail, they don't have that ability after all!

In sports, there was an illustration of Coach Bobby Knight versus Coach John Wooden, as well as a John McEnroe or Pedro Martinez versus a Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods. The growth mindset coach or athlete does not see it as being all about him (or her . . . case in point, Mia Hamm) but rather about how the team improves as a whole through effort. (Okay, tennis and golf are not team sports, but no athlete truly "makes it" alone; there are always a host of support staff.) In business, Lee Iacocca had a fixed mindset; Lou Gerstner, who turned around IBM, a growth mindset. Examples were also given in the arts. But I am oversimplifying it to give the bigger picture.

What should we, as teachers (and parents), be doing differently? First, we have to analyze our own mindsets, in different areas, including academics, sports, art, and relationships. Do we project this onto our children and students? I always start thinking about myself as a parent. Do I tell Cameron he is a smart little boy because he knows letters, numbers, shapes, etc.? What I need to learn how to praise is how hard he worked to learn all these things. Conversely, would we belittle an infant because she can't talk? No, because she simply has not learned how yet. So, in many different areas, can we re-learn how to send messages to our children about their own worth and value? Can I start talking to my son about his effort and achievement rather than the gifts I suspect he possesses?

When we lead our students at school, can we re-train their mindsets, in many cases against what their parents have taught them, to value growth through hard work (even if it means learning from some mistakes and failures)? This is a tough one for me, because so many of my students live in a situation where failure of any kind is intolerable. Often, when a student gets a B or lower, parents will come in demanding to know what the teacher did wrong. The idea is that their child possesses such infallible talent or intelligence that missing an A grade must mean that the teacher tricked the child or did not do her job. The danger inherent in this arises later in life, when a friendship or other relationship falls apart, or a job opportunity is not won because someone else was better qualified. Or, more immediately, the high school or college of choice does not accept the student, regardless of grades and other rated achievements. The child, encouraged by their parents' limited view (fixed mindset), labels him- or herself as a nothing. "If I couldn't get into (insert name of school here), then I never was smart or talented or gifted or ANYTHING."

Imagine, now, the power of teaching these same kids the value of hard work as the means to achieve anything they desire. That means that opportunities can be achieved by anyone, not just a chosen few. Some will have to work harder than others, but they will have exercised and grown their brains more, thus becoming more intelligent. And then, when a friendship fizzles, when a marriage falls apart, when a test comes back with a D grade, or when the team loses, these are opportunities to learn how not to repeat the same mistakes. (NOT a reflection of a person's individual worth or value.)

See why I recommend this book?