Is success about learning — or proving you’re smart?
This is one of the questions posed in Mindset, by Carol S. Dweck. The book is a summary of Dweck’s research into how a person’s view about their ability to grow their basic intelligence or skills profoundly affects their life.
She describes a view that many of us have about intelligence (or musical talent, or artistic expression, or sports skills): that some are born with a lot of intelligence and are the smart ones. If you’re smart, you’ll do well academically; if you’re not smart, you won’t, and there’s little you can do about that. She then contrasts this view (a fixed mindset) with what she terms a growth mindset: a belief that intelligence is largely developed through effort.
The differences between the two mindsets impact our willingness to accept challenges, take risks, and to learn. When we have a fixed mindset, we are risk-averse and even effort-averse. (If we have to work really hard at an academic challenge, then we must not be smart enough to handle it.)
Believing that your qualities are carved in stone — the fixed mindset — creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character — well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics. (6)
On the other hand, when we adopt a growth mindset, effort is embraced as the means of growing our intelligence and skills.
[The] growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way — in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments — everyone can change and grow through application and experience. … [People with this mindset] believe that a person’s true potential is unknowns (and unknowable); that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training. (7)
Mindset and Teaching
I read Mindset because it was recommended by other parents, and thus I considered Dweck’s ideas especially in relation to my children.
Teaching mostly from a fixed-mindset approach (“my children have a fixed amount of intelligence”), I previously rewarded my girls for perfection. Yes, I applauded them for trying hard, and told them that everyone made mistakes, and assured them that I didn’t expect them to do everything perfectly. But … when they would complete a task without any mistakes, I would get really excited and would say things like, “Wow! You’re so smart!”
This had backfired on me. Tasha had often completed work without mistakes and received praise for doing things perfectly. But the more she progressed, the less confident she became. She was increasingly afraid of any question that might make her pause and think for more than 5 seconds. I saw this and knew I needed to make a change, but wasn’t sure what. More challenges? Easier questions? More compliments and enthusiasm?
After reading Dweck’s book, a couple of things fell into place for me. Instead of boosting her confidence with my praise, I was unintentionally undermining it and teaching her to be afraid of mistakes. If being perfect means that I’m smart, then making a mistake means that …?
Here’s what Dweck says about this:
One more thing about praise. When we say to children, “Wow, you did that so quickly!” or “Look, you didn’t make any mistakes!” what message are we sending? We are telling them that what we prize are speed and perfection. Speed and perfection are the enemy of difficult learning: “If you think I’m smart when I’m fast and perfect, I’d better not take on anything challenging.” So what should we say when children complete a task — say, math problems — quickly and perfectly? Should we deny them the praise they have earned? Yes. When this happens, I say, “Whoops. I guess that was too easy. I apologize for wasting your time. Let’s do something you can really learn from!” (p. 173)
I realized that I needed to change my own mindset first. I needed to start observing Tasha’s processes and efforts, and genuinely praising those. I needed to teach her to relish a problem that makes her think, because that’s how she’s going to grow.
I’m only a few weeks into this shift, but already I’m seeing her confidence increasing in so many areas. She even said to me the other day, “Well, this is a tricky puzzle, but that’s a good thing, right Mom? I’ll probably grow my brain today!”
Bottom Line: Skip, Borrow, or Buy?
Borrow it. It should be available through your library. Mindset will probably provide you with some fun “a-ha” moments. It may change how you approach some aspects of parenting and teaching. But because it is more thought-provoking than instructive, it’s unlikely to be a book that you’ll want on hand for future reference.