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Helping People Tip Toward a Growth Mindset
It is really exciting to learn about the concept of a growth mindset at first; it makes so much sense! "Yes! When we believe we can improve, we take action to do so, and we get smarter - we change. It's so simple!"
Except it isn't. At some point, we find ourselves thinking, but wait a minute. If it's this simple, why is it that I know so many people who do not change at all? And how come, even when we share growth mindset concepts with some people, it does not seem to make any difference? What is going on here?
by David Dockterman, Ed.D., & Lisa S. Blackwell, Ph.D.
With all the media excitement about grit and "non-cognitive" skills, educators might conclude that to ensure students' success we just need to get them to resist eating marshmallows, as documented in the well-known experiment that revealed that children who managed to refrain from eating a marshmallow while the experimenter stepped out of the room had greater academic and life success (Mischel et al., 2011).
The ability to self-regulate and persist in the face of challenge is indeed a critical factor in student academic and life performance. However, teaching "gritty" behaviors directly may not be successful if students don't have the mindset, strategies, and supports they need to motivate and sustain their growth (Farrington et al., 2012). Core beliefs, content-specific skills, and classroom culture are also essential to success.
Arriving with the implementation of the Common Core State Standards in 40+ U.S. states is tremendous pressure for schools to get results and to be masters of the Core as quickly as possible. Invoking the Growth Mindset as we accept the challenge of the Core standards will help our schools maintain the momentum and stamina we need to develop expertise.
How can schools set themselves up to cultivate Common Core experts? None of us is currently an expert in the CCSS. Expertise will emerge with classroom practice and experience implementing these standards with real students. It will emerge with the willingness to take responsible risks and to participate in collective reflection. It will emerge with strong collaboration and compassionate patience. These qualities are only gained in a risk-tolerant system through strategic, purposeful effort which includes timely, formative feedback.
3.3 million teachers will be asked to change their practices, routines, and lessons this year to align with the Common Core State Standards. That is a staggering number when you think about that many Americans essentially experiencing a major job change at the same time!
It is inevitable that with all this change, some of us will fail. We will mess it up. We will get it wrong and forget some essential component (of a standard, a lesson, a concept). Our central offices will mess up too. Trainings will go awry, resources arrive late, and support will be well-intentioned, but spotty. Are we prepared to tolerate this process and allow ourselves to take the necessary responsible risks to LEARN and grow?
I hope so.
Located in the heart of Brooklyn, New York, Lenox Academy offers an academically accelerated program for middle school students in grades 6 through 8. Yet, while the overwhelming majority of our students exceed New York State standards in English Language Arts and Mathematics, a deeper analysis reveals a disturbing trend. We discovered that as the curriculum became more challenging over the course of middle school, many of our high-achieving students retreated from putting forth effort. The result was that academic performance actually declined over the three years for a large number of our students.
Reading about the work of Dr. Carol Dweck and her team at Mindset Works, we were able to more clearly understand the nature of our dilemma. Students who retreated from putting forth effort, we now realized, were exhibiting the characteristic fixed mindset. These were students who, for the better part of their young lives, had been praised for intelligence based on their performance in school and on NY State standardized exams. Acceptance into Lenox Academy brought more praise for intelligence—but when the accelerated curriculum began to present the kinds of challenges they had not previously encountered, they retreated.
We often speak about mindset as an attribute of a person—we say that a child “has a fixed mindset,” “I’m working to develop a growth mindset,” or even, “She has a fixed mindset about math”—and much of our research has focused on how individuals’ mindset beliefs influence their feelings, choices, and outcomes. But as we know from other research (on the impact of praise and of teaching about a growth mindset), the environment has a big impact on our mindsets too. This is no less true for adults than for kids. Try this thought experiment:
Imagine that, in your workplace, your performance is judged solely by a set of “high stakes” events: the number of sales you make, cases you win in court, or students’ scores on an annual exam. How much you have learned and improved are not considered; your helpfulness with your colleagues is irrelevant; your willingness to work hard and to learn does not matter. Furthermore, no one provides any support to help you improve; it’s “sink or swim” (really, really fast). Your colleagues are competitive and unwilling to share information and strategies, and your supervisor is remote and inflexible.