July 05, 2014
Growth Mindset
Posted by Elizabeth Pollman

Psychologist Carol Dweck studied elementary school students and observed that when some of them came across math problems that they couldn’t solve, they could no longer do problems that they had solved before, and this effect sometimes lasted for days.  What was going on with these students?  They viewed intelligence as a fixed trait.  When Dweck and fellow experimenters taught some of them that intelligence is malleable, like a muscle that grows with effort, these students persisted and improved.  The control group showed no improvement.  

For my last guest post, I wanted to share some research on “mindset,” because it has been so helpful in shaping my thinking on teaching and life more generally.  I’m lucky to be friends with Jacquie Beaubien, a senior project manager at the Project for Education Research That Scales (PERTS), an applied research center at Stanford University that works on mindset science and academic motivation.  They collaborate with leaders in the field like Carol Dweck and they’ve improved thousands of students’ achievement with programs based on mindset research.

The key insight is a difference in belief about intelligence: “fixed mindset” vs. “growth mindset.”

People with a “fixed mindset” see intelligence as a fixed trait that can’t be changed.  They think that effort indicates low ability.  People with a fixed mindset will spend their time trying to look smart rather than developing their intelligence.  They are less likely to seek help because they’re afraid of showing that they don’t know things, and they’re more likely to cheat.  They’ll get discouraged or draw back when they encounter challenges, afraid of failing.  A fixed mindset hinders reaching one’s potential.

People with a “growth mindset” believe that intelligence can change.  Effort is the mechanism by which you can grow your intelligence.  Setbacks are understood as a part of the learning process.  The “growth mindset” thus embraces challenges, which fosters a love of learning and the resilience that’s often needed to accomplish great things.  Indeed, people with a growth mindset often see themselves as learning rather than failing at something (e.g., saying to oneself “I can’t do it yet,” or “I’m getting there” rather than “This shows that I failed and can’t do it.”).

A great deal of thoughts and behavior spring from these mindsets, including our relationship with success and failure.  These mindsets affect what we strive for and how we interpret effort.  

For example, Carol Dweck quotes one seventh-grade girl who explained: “I think intelligence is something you have to work for . . . it isn’t just given to you . . . . Most kids, if they’re not sure of an answer, will not raise their hand to answer the question.  But what I usually do is raise my hand, because if I’m wrong, then my mistake will be corrected.  Or I will raise my hand and say, ‘How would this be solved?’ or ‘I don’t get this.  Can you help me?’  Just by doing that I’m increasing my intelligence.”

Dweck’s research also found, with the use of a brain-wave lab, that mindset affected how brains behaved when receiving feedback.  Those with a fixed mindset focused on hearing feedback about their present ability and they tuned out information that could help them improve.  By contrast, those with a growth mindset were attentive to information that helped them learn, regardless of whether they got a question right or wrong.

We can learn to adopt a growth mindset and use language that supports resilience.  A bunch of resources on mindset research are available, such as Carol Dweck’s great book, articles about her work and others, and the PERTS site has mindset surveys, readings, and more. 

Mindset research informs my teaching in a variety of ways.  For example, usually in the beginning of the semester when I talk about class policies, I make clear that I really care whether they come to class prepared because much of their learning will take place with lots of hard work outside of class.  I say that law school is often the time when people experience working the hardest they’ve ever worked.  I ask that students strive for high-quality participation, knowing that it's okay to make mistakes when speaking in class.  In fact I say that we learn as much, or more, from mistakes...it's part of the learning process. 

Throughout the semester, I try to cultivate an atmosphere of trust and encouragement for effort in class.  I use the language of a growth mindset in giving feedback on midterm exams and in-class problems.  I tell them that the legal profession has high standards and the reason I give critical feedback is because I believe they can learn to meet those high standards.  I try to remember to praise effort and process (e.g., “I like the way you…” or “you’re doing a good job, keep going…”) rather than fixed ability (“you’re smart”).  I find that I can tell a student that their answer is wrong without using a negative tone … because I actually believe it's not a bad thing.  As Dolly Parton said, “You’ll never do a whole lot unless you’re brave enough to try.”

It has been a real pleasure guest blogging.  Many thanks to the Conglomerate for the opportunity.

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