The Mindsets

FWhen I was an undergraduate, I loved having the opportunity to choose whichever courses interested me. Outside of my major, I took everything from calculus to photography to sociology. I also took advantage of another benefit offered: the option to take courses "pass/fail." I engaged this option whenever there was the chance that I would earn less than an "A."

At the time, I justified it from a financial standpoint. I had tuition and housing scholarships which required a certain GPA: a "C" would harm my GPA, but a "P" had no effect on it and I'd still earn the credit. However, in hindsight, I see that this behavior was a sign of something I'm only now starting to understand: my transcript was my identity.

Recently at an after-school meeting, one of our building associate principals shared an article summarizing the work done by Carol Dweck of the Stanford University School of Psychology. The gist: while it is not absolute, there are generally two "mindsets" into which people can be classified–the "fixed" mindset and the "growth" mindset. 

A person whose disposition is in the "growth" mindset will relish challenge, recover from failure having learned and applied critical lessons, and "end up" in a different and usually better place from where they "start out."

In college, I was clearly of the "fixed" mindset.

To someone with a fixed mindset, a person's skill or intelligence is a fixed attribute. Achievement should be easy, because it is based on innate talent or intellect. Any experience or feedback which threatens the fixed label that has been adopted is avoided. For example: someone with a fixed mindset (let's say that mindset is "I am a good student") will consciously or unconsciously avoid any endeavor which might result in failure, because that failure will contradict the fixed identity of being "good." We see this with the "A" student who rails against the teacher for "giving him a B" when he "has always been an 'A student.'" To someone with a fixed mindset, to struggle or ask for help is a sign of failure: if intellect and skill is fixed, one should not need to struggle or seek help. Dweck writes:

From the point of view of the fixed mindset, effort is only for people with deficiencies…if your claim to fame is not having any deficiencies–if you're considered a genius, a talent, or a natural–then you have a lot to lose. Effort can reduce you. (in Mindset, 2006, p. 42)

The other side has validity as well: a student with a fixed mindset may also define himself as a "failure" or "bad at math" or "not a good reader." This student will also consciously or unconsciously sabotage himself from the kinds of successes and achievements that might contradict this fixed identity.

To further oversimplify: a growth mindset student who typically gets As will redouble his efforts to improve when a C or D shows up on an assessment. A growth mindset student who struggles in math will recognize that a past string of Fs does not mean a future string of As is impossible–and will put forth effort toward the latter.

Interestingly, Dweck also pointed out the effect of a "C" each of these kinds of students. Upon earning a "C," the fixed mindset student accustomed to As will actually study less because the grade is perceived as fixed–there is nothing to be done, the "C" is definite. The growth mindset student with a similar record will study more.

As a result, the person who starts out the smartest or most talented will not necessarily end up the smartest or most talented–especially if the former carries a fixed mindset and the latter, growth.

I don't necessarily agree with everything Dweck asserts, but I've begun reading her book (though I find it to be a bit padded with excessive examples that reiterate what is not necessary to be reiterated). It is certainly making me think. For one, I realize that I still am more of a fixed mindset than I originally wanted to admit. Thankfully, however, there is clear evidence that people's mindsets can shift.

In my job, I see all this manifesting on two levels. 

With my students, I am starting to see where my students fall on that fixed-growth continuum. And, not surprisingly, their grades are rarely a good predictor of whether they are at one end or the other.

Even more so, these concepts have led me to adopt a new lens on how I view myself and my colleagues–especially as we transition to the new teacher evaluation system that ostensibly places value in reflection and growth. Not surprisingly, the teacher's reputation as "effective" is rarely a good predictor of whether their disposition is toward a fixed or growth mindset.

I'm going to be posting more about this over the next week or two. In particular, I want to share an activity my teaching partner had our students do that has forced some of our students to rethink their mindset.

But first: let's think about teachers. Specifically, about which lessons we want our evaluators to see, and what this says about our personal mindset as a professional.

4 thoughts on “The Mindsets

  1. Travis A. WITTWER

    So glad you are delving into this area. This is a great book. Some friends passed this book on to me; their school read it as a school PLC. I started to read it. Good insights.
    My father is a flexible mindset. In my life, I have often chosen to think like my father because my nature mindset is fixed. I don’t take risks that would cause failure. However, thinking like my father, I have placed myself in so many wonderful situations where I have learn. Learned because I was challenged. And because I was challenged, I gained more skills (often new skills, unrelated to other aspects of my life: boxing, web design, character “acting”).
    Too bad we are not able to give this to our students. From another angle, teachers tend to be more fixed in their thinking, and as such, teachers tend to not push their own craft.
    There is a great deal we can take away from your post, and the research.

  2. Mark Gardner

    As for the book, there is some really interesting stuff, but as I mentioned, I feel like the examples are overwrought and excessive (Imagine that criticism coming from me!).
    I agree that most teachers are of a fixed mindset, myself included. Our whole job is to assign a “label” to a student’s proficiency, skill or knowledge. That label implies something fixed. I want to change my mindset, though, for my own good and for my children and my students. I still waffle at times over taking on new tasks, responsibilities, or challenges that I don’t feel I’ll master on the first go. But, when I think about the things that I learned the most from, they were the risks I ended up taking. There are many risks worth taking when we think about classroom practice–but if it doesn’t go perfectly the first time, it is threatening…and therefore much easier to just do what we’ve always done that has more certainly of the “sure thing.”

  3. Tom

    I had the opportunity to hear Carol Dweck at a conference over the summer. She was fascinating. I found out I am of the “growth mindset.” In fact, I was totally unaware that the “fixed mindset” even existed! This knowledge, as you can imagine, has had repercussion on my teaching.

  4. Mark Gardner

    When we first started reading and discussing, I was certain I’d be a growth-mindset person. From what I know of you, Tom, I can see you in that mindset. I think I have more confidence in my students’ ability to change–I don’t see their skills or intellect as fixed–but looking back I on my own life, I treated myself very differently.

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