“Mindset” – change ours, change theirs…

July 15, 2010 at 10:23 AM 2 comments

Is talent  fixed and God-given, or can it be grown with effort and persistence? Our own mindset, and how we communicate that to our students can make a profound difference for their and our success.

I’m fascinated and inspired by Carol S. Dweck’s book “Mindset – The New Psychology of Success“. She’s a leading researcher in psychology at Stanford with a profoundly compassionate and evidence-based view on how to help us all be more successful.

One memorable experiment was to give an IQ test to a group of elementary students. Half were then praised for being so smart. The other half were praised for persisting and effort. Then they did another similar IQ test. Predict the outcome.

I thought probably about the same, I mean, it’s just a semantic difference, right?

The half who had been praised for smartness scored less well the second time, and 40% inflated their scores when asked how they had done. The other half praised for effort did better on the second test, attempted harder questions and didn’t cheat.

Similar observations from stories of successful and ‘failed’ geniuses, as well as many different ways of looking at similar questions brings her to surmise that people that think they have a talent or are naturally smart will not want to risk disproving that. And that takes away from the wish or need to try something harder. It also makes it much more tempting to cheat to keep your (and others) view of you intact.

The pressure to ‘live up to your potential’ can be paralyzing and can absolutely stand in the way of taking risks and learning from mistakes. Jolly Jack Foard, the Pupil’s Friend, our VP at high school wrote “Susan will do great things.” or something similar, on my final report card. I’m sort of dogged by that, wondering if I could or have ever lived up to that. Totally well-meaning and tremendously sweet. But it had the opposite effect to that which he intended.

So what’s the alternative? The growth mindset is where you believe you can affect your talent and IQ by working hard at what ever it is that catches your interest. That the old saw “Talent is 99% effort.” turns out, according to Dweck, to be true even for Darwin, Edison and Mozart. They were incredibly focused and persistent. Yes, maybe with a little more native smarts than the average bear, but maybe not. And the kicker is that if you (and our students) believe that we can affect our IQ and talent, we are much more willing to see mistakes and learn from them, instead of being struck down by despair where failure is seen as a comment on our central selves, instead of (I hate to say this hackneyed phrase, please forgive) a learning opportunity.

In Sept. I’ll teach this overtly at the start of the school year and fold in some nature of science content – do we know this is true? How? Was it a fair test? and have kids examine some of the studies.  While I’ve stumbled across parts of this mindset  in the way the my classroom is set up, it’s nice to have it systematized and vindicated. For a more wide-ranging analysis of data around intelligence see Nisbett’s excellent “Intelligence and How to Get It – Why School and Culture Count”. Just the title alone will get people to talk to you on public transportation. Or not…

I’m realizing that maybe I am at least striving for the growth mindset: Crap at cross-country skiing. Still trying very, very slowly. Same for rock climbing. Sorry to all the folks who have patiently belayed me flailing and failing. And for teaching too. First year out, my supervisor told me to “Stop screeching at the kids.” For some reason, I have always tried to reflect on what went wrong (or right). I think the forgiveness of children helps – “Well that didn’t work. Let’s do it a little differently today.” and they’ll usually give it a cheerful try.

How to set up class room structures and assessments that encourage effort, persistence and of course, centrally, motivation to learn? That reward effort over well, competitive achievement grades?


Entry filed under: Assessment and grading, Creativity, Education Psychology. Tags: , , , , , , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Karen Snelson  |  July 15, 2010 at 11:57 AM

    Enjoyed your blog. just finished reading “Switch” the book on making change. The authors mentioned how powerful it is to have a mindset that says I can grow, learn, change even improve my IQ . Seems our mind (maybe even the heart) can improve with effort and trials just as our muscles can. It is reassuring to know that research supports that over 50% of Intelligence is a result of the environmental factors, not fixed by our genetic inheritance. For the kids to realize that is empowering. Thanks for all the resources. Karen


  • 2. Sue Boudreau  |  July 15, 2010 at 7:23 PM

    That’s next on my list to finish, and Drive by Daniel Pink. Talk to you soon. S



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