Is a Growth Mindset the Answer?


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In two days at ISTE 2013 I’ve already experienced countless inspirational moments, heard dozens of fantastic quotes, and left presentations feeling renewed, invigorated, and empowered. One theme that seems oddly absent from this conference, however, is the idea of a growth mindset and student motivation.

I do not mean to be cynical, only to provide iste conference planners and future keynoters with some useful feedback. After having read Carol Dweck’s book and reading through Larry Ferlazzos work (he’s also written a book on this) it’s increasingly obvious that educators will not improve student performance with all their initiatives and expensive IT investments unless they recognise this key belief and take steps to adopt a growth mindset program in their school. The logic behind this assertion is simple:

Assumption1: The problems we face in life are getting more and more complex and challenging.
Assumption2: The way to address these problems in schools is becoming more and more complex and challenging (think interdisciplinary, collaborative, project-based learning)
Fact1: Individuals with a fixed mindset show significantly (shockingly even) LESS aptitude for success as work gets more challenging.
Fact2: Individuals with a growth mindset show significantly MORE aptitude for success as work gets more challenging.

If you follow this logic, you might conclude that schools and their students who foster a growth mindset are well-positioned for success, while the other is not.  This may be true both in spite of and because of the move toward 21st century learning that policy makers, administrators, and other educational leaders are promoting.  Don’t get me wrong, I am firmly in that camp and feel we aren’t moving fast enough to transform learning.  Could it be, however, that we’re missing an essential step in the process?  Are we forgetting the essential component of transforming ourselves from fixed mindset educators to growth mindset learners?

“IF, like those with the growth mindset, you believe you can develop yourself, then you’re open to accurate information about your current abilities, even it it’s unflattering. What’s more, if you’re oriented toward learning, as they are, you need accurate information about your current abilities in order to learn effectively”

― Carol S. Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

Do you know whether you have predominantly a growth or a fixed mindset?  Do you know how to tell?  You will find that you are probably not entirely one or the other.  In some areas of life and work you are probably growth-minded, while in others you are fixed.  Dweck outlines these qualities as such.

Fixed mindset people:

Believe talent is fixed and that if they fail at something it is because they don’t have that talent and cannot develop it.
Do not seek feedback or share their work because negative feedback can be catastrophic.
React to failure in a destructive manner,  often becoming depressed and giving up.

Growth mindset people:

Believe talent can be developed and that if they fail at something it is because they did not try hard enough.
Actively seek feedback and convert that feedback into stimulus and guidance for further improvement.
React to failure in a constructive manner,  trying harder to overcome it and be successful in the future.

After reading Carol’s book I realized that I am decidedly more fixed in my personal interactions with family and friends.  I am growth-minded in my hobbies and pursuits such as with golf, photography, and home-brewing.  I enter contests and tournaments, actively seek feedback, and handle it pretty well when the feedback is not praise.  In my professional life, I’ve overcome a fixed mindset earlier in my career by starting this blog, presenting at conferences, and actively seeking feedback from my peers.  Of course, I have much growing left to do.  If I thought I was perfect, or even good enough, I would be decidedly fixed in my mindset.

Overcoming the fixed mindset is tough and takes training on its own; it’s not as easy as just recognising your mindset and changing it.   This alone speaks to the difficulties of school reform. For great masses of teachers to radically change their thinking they will will have to first work on their mindsets.  Is this even possible you ask?   I hope it is yet I cannot be sure.  What I can be sure of, however, is that very little substantive change will happen without it.

Have you done any work with your school or students on mindsets?  If you have, I’d love to learn about it.

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