I just finished reading a phenomenal book, Mindset by Carol S. Dweck. This book is a must-read for anyone who teaches at any level, or anyone who parents for that matter.
Dweck argues that traditionally, people view one’s ability, whether IQ or artistic ability, as fixed. Dweck calls this view the “fixed mindset.” Until you get close to your potential, work happens almost effortlessly. If you have to put in effort, that’s bad news since it means you’re reaching the limit of your ability. Students with the fixed mindset tend to avoid challenges because challenges by definition require effort, and effort implies the very real possibility (in their eyes) of failing. Failing at something is bad because it means you’re a failure. (Question: Does this sound like the “Imposter Syndrome” among academics.) This is especially difficult for college students who have likely been successful for all of their academic careers. Indeed, Dweck identifies the transition to college as one of the major stress points for learners.
Dweck proposes another view, the “growth mindset.” According to this view, one’s ability is not fixed. Rather, it’s like a muscle—the more you work at it, the greater your ability. With this mindset, effort is a positive not a negative since it is through effort that you learn and your ability grows. Failure is an opportunity for learning and improvement, not a judgment. Many successful people have made this point:
- “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Thomas A. Edison
- “There isn’t enough failure around here. If you aren’t failing, you aren’t trying. Science is developed through failures. That is how we learn.” – Edwin Land, CEO of Polaroid
But we usually write these people off as geniuses. Dweck argues that we all have that potential, but that many or most of us are mired in the fixed mindset.
Dweck helped me better understand something I have witnessed over my teaching career. Some students are very bright. They never have to work at learning. They simply look at the task and complete it with little or no effort. This is analogous to the writer who when he writes, simply puts down on paper what he already knows.
Contrast this with another type of student. The second type of student isn’t as bright as the first type. She has always had to work hard to learn and to get good grades. Using the same analogy: This student writes to find out what she knows. She doesn’t start out knowing; she has to work at it.
The problem with the first type of student is that if they continue in school, eventually they reach a level where they can’t complete the work without effort. Often, these students find they’ve never learned how to work through a problem to figure it out. They don’t understand what ‘figure it out’ means since it’s never been a part of their experience. Sometimes, these very bright students flunk out of school–they’ve always been A students and now they’re failing. They don’t know how to learn, so when their existing model doesn’t work, they’re at a loss for how to proceed. These students can be literally clueless. What a waste of talent.
Of course, there are also bright students who work hard, but the system inhibits them because what’s the point of learning more if you have already earned an A? There are also less bright students who don’t know how to work at learning. Often, they don’t make it to university.
Are you frustrated that too many students play the grade game, that too many seem uninterested in real learning? Perhaps the most important thing we can teach our students is the growth mindset. It’s something I’m going to make a central part of my pre-major and major advising this year.