05 February 2010

It's All About Mindset

Matt had to read Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck. Normally, neither of us read "self-help" books and we both have a rather cynical attitude about them. But, he delved right in, to get it out of the way, and was surprised by how he was relating to the book's message. So, when he finished it, I began reading it to find out for myself what had caught his attention.

In a nutshell, the premise of the book is that there are two types of mindsets that people adopt: the fixed mindset in which people believe that their abilities are finite and the growth mindset in which people believe that they can become smarter, more talented, better at something, etc, through effort. I am sure you can guess which mindset is the better one to have.

Matt and I agree that some of the examples in the book are a bit simplistic and the author repeats her points ad nauseum. The book is also a few years old and some of the people she holds up as examples of the growth mindset have since fallen from grace. But there are lessons to be learned from it, especially for teachers and parents.

Dweck divides the book into chapters about business, sports, relationships and teaching/parenting. While the earlier chapters were enlightening, the teaching/parenting chapter was the most relevant from my perspective. It examines how we can instill a growth mindset in our students or our children and encourage them to learn for the sake of learning, rather than to appear smart. Dweck asserts that fixed mindset people shy away from challenges for fear of failing and proving that they are not smart. Growth mindset people, on the other hand, seek out challenges because they know that it will help them learn and grow. Teachers and parents can lead children along either of these paths depending on the message that we send through our teaching and how we model the mindsets in our own lives.

One way to instill a growth mindset is to take care about how we praise children. The parent modeling the fixed mindset tells her child how smart he is when he does well in school or solves a puzzle. A parent who models the growth mindset, instead praises her son's effort in attacking the challenge of learning new material or working through a difficult situation. According to Dweck, the fixed mindset praise teaches children that being smart is what is most important and causes them to only attempt something that they are assured of doing well at. Conversely, the growth mindset praise teaches children that the effort is what is valued, whether or not it is successful, and causes them to see learning as the sought after goal rather than gaining others' esteem.

Dweck accepts that this praise message may be difficult for many parents and teachers to buy into. We have been conditioned to build children up and worry about their self-esteem being dampened rather than to focus on what effect this unearned praise has on their ability to approach life's challenges. I never thought that by telling Isaac he was smart that he would fear that I would not love him if he failed at something.

I took a couple of messages away from this book. Personally, I have often shied away from trying something new because I believed that I did not have the ability or I could not learn it. After Isaac was born, I began changing this mindset on my own. I want to set the example for Isaac that it is important to face new challenges and that perfection is not what is important, but learning is. Professionally, I want to have a growth mindset in my approach to teaching. I want to help my students learn that success or failure on a test or project does not determine their academic ability. Their willingness to learn from their mistakes and use their failures to grow does.

The mindsets are not black and white. You are not either or. Many of us are probably a mix of the two, depending on what the situation is. The key is understanding what our mindset is and how we can change it if we choose to.

Matt and I are trying to be conscious of the mindset that we are modeling for Isaac. We are praising him for the effort he is putting into learning his numbers and letters and when he masters a task we are challenging him to move on to a harder one. But most importantly we are showing him that we love him whether he fails or not and helping him learn that failure is part of growing. He is going to struggle with some things that he tries. It is how he handles the struggle that will be important.

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