(Just a brief little note, these are my reflections after reading Dweck, C. Mindsets: The psychology of success. 2006. Random House. New York, NY. The concept of the mindsets belongs to Dweck, I'm simply reflecting on them in terms of my experience with education. Thanks!
I have recently read "Mindsets: The Psychology of Success" by Carol S. Dweck and much of what she wrote struck a chord with me, especially in how teachers view students, how students view themselves, and how teachers view themselves. I'm not usually one to buy books that have words such as "psychology of success" in their titles. However, when attending a conference last summer one of the presenters mentioned this book and I thought it would be interesting so I downloaded it to the Kindle. And then it sat there for a year. Finally this summer I decided to revisit the book because I was intrigued about the way mindsets can become helpful or hindrances in learning.
Carol Dweck describes two distinct mindsets that contribute to how people handle success, setbacks, and life. First there is the fixed mindset. In this mindset people believe that a person's qualities, intellect, and abilities are set in stone. They believe that you either can or can't and there is no changing that. On the other hand, there is the growth mindset. In this mindset people believe that your abilities, intellect, and qualities can and should change. They believe that a person can change and grow through experiences and practice. A big defining line in terms of the fixed mindset and the growth mindset is in regards to effort. Those with the fixed mindset believe that by putting forth effort you are showing that you are not smart enough, not good enough; that in order to do something you should already be good at it and not have to put in effort. Those with the growth mindset believe that effort is growth and through effort you can improve. To them, effort is something to be valued not something to be scorned at.
In thinking about how teachers view students, the idea of the fixed and growth mindsets is of extreme importance. A teacher with a fixed mindset who views their students as unchanging is to me a huge contradiction. If a teacher has a fixed mindset then they will rely on tests as the only markers of a child's worth in school. Think about it. If you believe that a person either can or can't and that there is no changing that, why would you place any effort into educating students who initially, or at some point, perform low on a test? You wouldn't. You would believe that that child is just not able and would stop expecting things from them. These are the teachers (and administrators) who believe in grouping students into fixed groups at the beginning of the year and not adjusting their groups as children progressed. For a student who has a teacher in the fixed mindset they are stuck because their teacher will be unable to see their potential. By the way, this fixed mindset is why I believe those in charge of education are keeping a tight grasp on standardized tests. With their fixed mindset, they see these tests as the end all in terms of a child's ability rather than as a marker in time, which is what a test really is.
On the other hand, think of a teacher with a growth mindset (the type of mindset we should hope all teachers have!). These teachers will see the potential in all of their students and understand that as a teacher it is their role to help each child grow and change. A teacher should not stand for stagnation, but should instead insist on growth. This doesn't mean that a teacher with a growth mindset will think that all of her students will develop into super geniuses, just that they will believe that all children can grow. And what's more, these are the teachers who will be able to see that growth in all children and will be able to document this growth, showing that even in the case of a student who may not read at grade level at the end of the year, that the student did make progress, that his progress is just on a different path than those of his peers. The growth mindset allows teachers to see the individuality and potential in every student.
Carol Dweck really says it best when she says that the difference between a teacher with a fixed mindset and one with a growth mindset is the difference between the thought of "can they learn" to "how can they learn best" in terms of their students.
After reflecting on how the mindsets affect how a teacher views children, I was struck again by how a particular mindset can cause children to view themselves. To me, it is important to understand the mindsets so that when teaching you can recognize the mindsets in children. In this way you may be able to better understand why a child acts out (perhaps they have a fixed mindset and are frustrated because they feel as though they won't get it anyway) and hopefully recognize the fixed mindset and help the child learn to change their mindset so that they can embrace the joy of learning. At one point in our lives as educators, we have all come across those students who seem to deflate after a mistake, are too afraid of failing to venture a guess, who feel that they are smart already and don't need to work. Those are the students who have a fixed mindset and their way of though prevents them from growing. As teachers, rather than scold, embarrass, or fail these students, it is my belief that we need to teach them the skills had by their growth mindset peers. These growth minded peers believe that they can learn and even when they fail they start again and keep on trying rather than slumping over and quitting. These are the students who come up to you after an exam and ask you what they need to do to do better next time, who keep trying to build that block tower that just won't stay up, who courageously enter the art area even if they think that their painting isn't the best in the class.
As educators, I would venture that one of our main jobs is to facilitate learning so that all of our students have this ability to grow and to think that they can grow. It is important to model an attitude of perseverance and to be cautious in the ways in which we speak to children. In this era of a fear of making children feel low self esteem, there is an effort to combat this through an excessive amount of praise. Build up the child so that they don't fall. I've always thought this was a huge mistake, how will a child learn to get back up if they don't fall? Dweck specifically writes about the dangers of praise in a way that really took hold of me as an educator. She wrote that by praising a child's skill or intellect you are sending a message to the child that they are not worthy unless they are able to maintain that level of competence. And then when they are not, they feel like a failure. Rather, she said it is important to praise the effort behind a child's task and in this manner they will learn to understand that they may make mistakes or they may have successes, but that it is their effort and time and process that is what is relevant. As a child development specialist, I know this to be true. Isn't it what we teach all teachers of young children, to comment on the process of a child's work and play rather than their final product? After reading "Mindsets", I have pledged to be even more careful in the ways in which I praise a child. I want the children I meet and work with to have a faith in themselves and their processes and their ability to fail and get right back up.
Finally, Dweck's book had me considering a teacher's mindset in how they view themselves. Though similar to how they view children, there is a subtle difference in how the mindsets play out in their own professional development. Teachers with a fixed mindset are those who dread going to conferences and workshops because they feel as though they already know what they need to know to teach. These are the teachers who when a new technology is introduced run away saying they "don't do tech". Their fixed mindset prevents them from trying a new approach or integrating a new material into their classrooms. I've seen firsthand teachers with this fixed mindset and it can be quite frustrating to work with them. However, just as teachers don't get a choice about which students they teach, nor do I get a choice in which teachers I work with. After reflecting on this book, I feel at least more prepared to recognize teachers who hold a fixed mindset and rather than getting frustrated when I hit a brick wall in their development, I will now know that before I can attempt to get them on board to try a new method or technology that I will first have to listen and help them at least become open to the idea of a growth mindset.
I would love to have all growth mindset teachers, those who ask questions and crave professional development and are eager to try a new method or to do research within their own classrooms. But that's not reality. Instead I will hope to use the growth minded teachers to inspire and help change the mindset of their fixed mindset peers.
I have to have the hope that those with a fixed mindset can change, otherwise I will have found myself trapped in the fixed mindset as well!