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Educators and parents want their kids to seek challenges and persist through difficulty—but so often, they don't. It's all too familiar: John always takes the easy way out; Angel gives up at the first sign of difficulty; Anna falls apart when she gets a disappointing grade.
Of course, struggling students are especially vulnerable to helplessness and fear of failure. But even high-performing kids fall prey to test anxiety, or avoid that one subject that fills them with dread. Why does this happen? And what can we do about it?
The sad truth is that many students feel very vulnerable in school. For lots of kids, school is above all a place where they are tested and judged—often publicly—and where they feel inadequate. Sometimes, this vulnerability extends to the home, especially if parents place a very high value on perfect performance or are intolerant of failure. It's not what we intend, but it's what they experience.
The good news is that it's within our power to change this, if we know the keys to creating a risk-tolerant home and classroom culture.
Does what you think about your ability really matter? If you had asked me that question a few years ago, my response would have been, “No, not really.” But over the past two years, I've changed from the negative, stressed-out, perfectionist teenage girl I was my freshman year to the joyful person I am today. Now, my response is much different.
A growth mindset is the understanding that personal qualities and abilities can change. It leads people to take on challenges, persevere in the face of setbacks, and become more effective learners. As more and more people learn about the growth mindset, which was first discovered by Stanford Professor Carol Dweck, we sometimes observe some confusions about it. Recently some critiques have emerged. Of course we invite critical analysis and feedback, as it helps all of us learn and improve, but some of the recent commentary seems to point to misunderstandings of growth mindset research and practice. This article summarizes some common confusions and offers some reflections.
My team and I worked tirelessly for three days to create an online middle school math lesson that would engage kids and excite them about math. At the end of three days, our lesson would be judged by real live students against lessons created by other teams. When it came time to present our lesson to the kids, we were nervous but excited. We had worked well as a team, really bonded over the past three days, and were proud of what we had created. Ten teams presented their ideas, and they were all fantastic! I felt gratified to work with people who put so much effort into writing creative and engaging online lessons. At the awards ceremony, we were sad to see we hadn't won first place, but still proud of our efforts. We knew we had a lesson that would engage kids in math, and felt we had put our best ideas to good use. Until the next, "surprise" award was announced. You can imagine our shock, dismay, and embarrassment when we heard our group called as winners of "The Worst Idea" award, and were then called to stand in front of our colleagues and accept the award. What an epic failure! How does one recover from such a humiliating setback?
A growth mindset about mistakes
We can deepen our own and our students' understanding of mistakes, which are not all created equal, and are not always desirable. After all, our ability to manage and learn from mistakes is not fixed. We can improve it.
Here are two quotes about mistakes that I like and use, but that can also lead to confusion if we don't further clarify what we mean:
"A life spent making mistakes is not only most honorable but more useful than a life spent doing nothing" - George Bernard Shaw
"It is well to cultivate a friendly feeling towards error, to treat it as a companion inseparable from our lives, as something having a purpose which it truly has." - Maria Montessori
These constructive quotes communicate that mistakes are desirable, which is a positive message and part of what we want students to learn. An appreciation of mistakes helps us overcome our fear of making them, enabling us to take risks. But we also want students to understand what kinds of mistakes are most useful and how to most learn from them.