Over the last few weeks there has been much discussion amongst staff on Carol Dweck’s research. Dweck is Professor of Psychology at Stanford University and her popular book, Mindset: The new psychology of success (2006) has created conversations amongst staff.
In the introduction to the book, Dweck outlines that the field of psychology shows the power of people’s beliefs. She notes that these beliefs may be clear as conscious beliefs or beliefs we are unaware of, but either way they strongly affect what we want and whether we succeed at getting it. Psychology can also show how changing people’s beliefs, even the simplest beliefs, can have profound effects on their lives.
Dweck has shown that our mindset about growth, challenge, talent and intellect permeates every part of our life. She contends that her research shows what we think of as our personality, grows out of this mindset, and that our mindset can also be modified.
Our community has stereotypical views about intellect and talent. Our common view of intellect, ability and talent being ‘advantages’ that we either have or not have, is a very strong view in our popular culture. Our sporting heroes are seen as ‘super human’ in their ‘magical’ ability to perform in their sport. We have similar views of musical ‘prodigies’, artists and intellectual ‘giants’ as beings very different from us; endowed with talents and abilities that we missed out on in the ‘lucky dip’ of life.
Much of our neuroscience knowledge, that is our knowledge of how our brain works, emanates from scientific research (as distinct from theories and hypotheses) that really only gained significant momentum after World War ll and has exploded in volume and complexity since the 1970s and 1980s. Thus much of this research is relatively new and has not become a part of our popular culture.
Much of the research now shows our popular culture to be wrong! For example, our popular conception of an IQ test is that it summarises a person’s unchangeable intelligence. Yet Binet, the Frenchman who devised the IQ test, designed it to assist in the further development of children, not as a measure of a finite quantum. Robert Sternberg, Professor of Human Development at Cornell University is an eminent academic on intelligence. He writes that the major factor in whether people achieve expertise is not some fixed prior ability, but purposeful engagement. Or as Binet said, it is not the people who start out the smartest who end up the smartest.
Our modern scientific conception differs from popular culture. Popular culture sees talent, ability or intelligence as fixed. The neuroscience says expertise can be developed through purposeful practice. This is not to say we are all born the same. Each of us is a unique individual and Gilbert Gottlieb, once an eminent psychologist now deceased, explained that <em>nature</em> and <em>nurture</em> play their parts in development with genes and the environment interacting.
Rather than accepting we have fixed talents, abilities and intelligence, Dweck suggests teaching a growth mindset, which then creates motivation, productivity and success in many fields of endeavour, including education and sports. She says it also enhances relationships.
The following links provide a good introduction to Carol Dweck’s work, though a search on YouTube will provide many opportunities to listen to and watch Professor Dweck.
So how do we develop this growth mindset? To learn you also have to be willing to make mistakes, to get it wrong. Some of the best learning comes initially from errors. Learning new information and skills is hard work; it is tiring to learn, but the more we do it, the easier it gets. Allow mistakes to inform the next step, don’t allow a failure to be used as an excuse to stop trying.
As adults we need to step back a little and let children struggle and up to a point, work it out for themselves. Many children display <em>learned helplessness</em> because an adult, often a teacher or parent is constantly jumping in to rescue and help them. We need to recognise that the effort and the journey is very important and in doing so, often the result will look after itself.
Changing a mindset or developing one is both straightforward and takes time. Initial success is often seen simply by changing the vocabulary you use with children and young people.
Listen for the messages in the following examples:
“You learned that so quickly! You’re so smart!”
“Look at that drawing. Martha, is he the next Picasso or what?”
“You’re so brilliant, you got an A without even studying!”
If you’re like most parents, you hear these as supportive, esteem-building messages. But listen more closely: See if you can hear another message. It’s the one that children hear:
“If I don’t learn something quickly, I’m not smart.”
“I shouldn’t try to draw anything hard or they’ll see I’m no Picasso.”
“I’d better quit studying or they won’t think I’m brilliant.”
Praising children’s intelligence harms their motivation and it harms their performance.
How can that be? Don’t children love to be praised?
Yes, children love praise. And they especially love to be praised for their intelligence and talent. It really gives them a boost; a special glow – but only for a moment. The minute they hit a snag, their confidence goes out the window and their motivation hits rock bottom. If success means they’re smart, then failure means they’re dumb. That’s the fixed mindset.
Does this mean we can’t praise our children enthusiastically when they do something great? No, not at all. It just means that we should keep away from certain kinds of praise – praise that judges their intelligence or talent. Or praise that implies that we’re proud of them for their intelligence or talent rather than the work they put in.
We can praise them as much as we want for the growth-oriented process – what they accomplished through practice, study, persistence and good strategies. And we ask them about their work in a way that admires and appreciates their efforts and choices.
“You really studied for your test and your improvement shows it. You read the material over several times, you outlined it, and you tested yourself on it. It really worked.”
“I like the way you tried all kinds of strategies in the math problem until you finally got it. You thought of a lot of different ways to do it and found the one that worked.”
“I know school used to be easy for you and you used to feel like the smart kid all the time. But the truth is that you weren’t using your brain to the fullest. I’m really excited about how you’re stretching yourself now and working to learn hard things.”
What about a student that worked hard and didn’t do well?
“I liked the effort you put in, let’s work together some more and figure out what it is you don’t understand.”
“We all have different learning curves. It may take more time for you to catch on to this and be comfortable with this material, but if you keep at it like this you will.”
“Everyone learns in a different way. Let’s keep trying to find what works for you.”
One more thing about praise. When we say to children, “Wow, you did that so quickly!” or “Look, you didn’t make any mistakes.” What message are we sending? We are telling them that what we praise are speed and perfection. Speed and perfection are the enemies of difficult learning: “If you think I’m smart when I’m fast and perfect, I’d better not take on anything challenging.” So what should we say when children complete a task – say, math problems – quickly and perfectly? Should we deny them the praise they have earned? Yes. When this happens, I say, “Whoops. I guess that was too easy. I apologise for wasting your time. Let’s do something you can really learn from!”
Our developing culture is to follow in the footsteps of our founders, the Taylors organisation. Taylors focussed on taking in any student who enrolled and assisting them to achieve and gain success. Taylors focussed on improvement and growth in the student through high expectations, high quality teaching, and a supportive and caring environment. Taylors gently held students responsible for their own learning.
We will develop growth and improvement, through focus and effort.