Friday, August 03, 2012

Fixing the "Fixed" Mindset

(Reflection on MINDSET: THE NEW PSYCHOLOGY OF SUCCESS by Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D. New York:  Ballantine Books, 2006.)

Early in the book The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck, the author recalls a neighbor who was "good at" mechanical repairs.  Peck expressed admiration for that talent and told him, "I can't fix anything."  The neighbor said, "That's because you never take the time to understand."   Peck was stung, and later remembered those words when a woman couldn't start her car.   Peck crawled under the steering column and took time to examine the starting aparatus until he recognized that an important wire was disconnected.  He connected the wire, and the car started.

The story illustrates what author Carol S. Dweck would call moving to a "growth mindset"  from a "fixed" one.  Peck had thought that ability or disability was "fixed."  That's why Peck makes "growth" the centerpoint of his psychology.  He defines "love" as "seeking to encourage growth in oneself or another."  Peck's book -- and that particular anecdote especially -- had such an impact on me during my first year of teaching that I've internalized a great deal of it.  I think of those car wires nearly every week of my life when some problem arises.

So I'm on familiar ground when Carol Dweck divides the world in categories of those who believe that everyone has the capacity to grow, and those who believe that talents are "fixed" at birth.   The genesis of her book was an encounter with little children who laughed at failure and persevered.

The "fixed mindset" is something I battle in my most troublesome middle-school students.   Dweck shows how such students blame their teachers for any poor performance on their part (76), avoid challenges that threaten their self-images as "smart" or "good at sports" (176),  and derive satisfaction from seeing the failures of others (234).

Here, Dweck is preaching, not just to the choir, but to the preachers.  Still, she has us imagine some "dilemmas" that got me thinking.  Suppose Elizabeth, a nine-year-old gymnast, fails to win any ribbons at the meet.  "What would you do if you were Elizabeth's parents?" she asks.

1.  Tell Elizabeth you thought she was the best.
2.  Tell her she was robbed of a ribbon that was rightfully hers.
3.  Reassure her that gymnastics is not that important.
4.  Tell her she has the ability and will surely win next time.
5.  Tell her she didn't deserve to win.

The first four answers are familiar to me from parents' responses -- sometimes directed at me, the mean drama teacher who didn't "give" so-and-so the desired part -- but I hesitated to choose number five.  Dweck gives a more diplomatic way of saying it, that the other kids worked hard for what they got, and that she can do that, too, if this is a goal she really cares about.

She gives great examples.  John McEnroe, raised by a fixed-mindset father, admits that he never enjoyed tennis, as he blamed others for failures (189).   Music teacher Dorothy Delay breaks a teenaged former prodigy of habits that earned early praise but hindered further development (42, 190).   Author Betty Edwards gets great results in just a week by helping fearful artists to take time to notice shape and shadow instead of rushing to draw what they think they're supposed to draw (68).  Broadway composer Adam Guettel, grandson of Richard Rodgers, spent much of his life avoiding situations where his musical talent might not measure up to the "genius" level (73).  Of course, there are teachers who get great results -- following great effort -- from "problem" classes.

Wondering how to break kids of their "fixed" mindsets,  I was struck by Dweck's common-sense observation to teens, that "nobody laughs at babies and says how dumb they are because they can't talk."  She explains how babies' brains "grow" with exercise, stimulation, and challenges.   She tells of the seventh grader who started crying during her presentation, saying, "You mean, I don't have to be dumb?"

I do have a bad habit of exclaiming, "You're a genius!" when someone makes a breakthrough, and that's a no-no in Dweck's book.  The child becomes fearful of failing to live up to the moniker.  Rather, I should say to young writers, "Your brainstorming paid off!  You found the solution to that problem!  You've pulled together your resources to make something exciting!"

While my colleagues all try to work from the "growth" mindset when they deal with our students, many have fixed mindsets regarding themselves and  other disciplines.  They say, "I can't draw, I'm not musical, I can't get into Shakespeare, I can't write, I can't do math."   That kind of thinking may be an obstacle to a goal that we all share, to create cross-curricular, cross-divisional collaborations.

I wonder, do major religions reflect this wisdom?   Does God treat His creatures as capable of growth, or does he condemn and reward them based on their innate qualities?  In the Hebrew Scriptures, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses chooses the oldest, or youngest, or smallest, or sneakiest to become His instruments of salvation.  The whole concept of "salvation" implies a belief that people can grow beyond their seeming weaknesses and failures.  In the Christian Scriptures, St. Paul develops the idea that God works through "weakness."  Interpreters have long ignored that aspect of Scripture to emphasize that certain ones are "chosen" or "pre-ordained."  Others focus not on growth but on forgiveness, as if growth isn't the point.

Buddhism and Hinduism both teach physical self-disciplines by which one grows through stages of life (or even stages of new lives) to reach a state of non-growth -- completeness or "oneness" with the Universe.

Dweck's book is not exactly a revelation, but thinking about these issues is certainly a good thing for a teacher to do, one week before school starts.

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