I’ve always had a bit of an interest in educational theory, not because I wanted to be an educator, but because in elementary school, I was placed in our district’s “gifted” class. Since then, I’ve been trying to figure out what that means about how I learn. I’ve done some exploring of educational research, but I had never heard of Carol Dweck’s “Growth Mindset” until now. Growth mindset is all about believing that intelligence is not a fixed trait. Rather, it is something that can be developed through time and effort. Instead of assessing students–and ourselves–on a quantifiable basis (i.e. how many math problems were completed correctly) we should instead assess and praise the effort put forth. Essentially, Dweck believes that we should encourage students to excel at the process of learning rather than the end result. I was very impressed to see that there’s been significant scientific research to show that these ideas aren’t just sentimental; they can actually help students achieve more.

One of my formative memories of my education is of going to a Montessori preschool. This means I was in charge of my own learning, more or less. I could choose to read picture books, play with animal figurines, or help make a snack whenever and for however long I wanted. I think this experience led me to become a self-motivated student. My pursuits of learning have always come from innate curiosity, which, according to Carol Dweck, is probably a major reason why I have achieved highly in school. I’m so glad that my parents–and school teachers–chose to teach me in a way that allowed me to learn the value of effort and curiosity instead of just telling me that I was smart. That would have been pretty easy for them–certainly easier than entertaining a hyperactive and precocious toddler–but I would not have the love and breadth of knowledge that I do now.

Dweck says that if a student completes an assignment and feels that it was easy, then that student was not being challenged enough. I can see that this makes sense, and it’s for this very reason that I was glad to be in gifted classes often. Those classes were accelerated, and the teachers were very good at finding the right ways to challenge each student. We had very few students in each class, which allowed that kind of attention from the instructor. However, I’m not sure how this idea could practically be put into practice in a modern classroom. Regardless of whether students have innate levels of intelligence, they are still going to move at different paces, and what it easy for one third of the class might still be challenging to the rest. How can a teacher trying to teach 30+ students a full curriculum in a six-hour school day manage to individualize lessons and assignments enough to appropriately challenge each student? Perhaps Dweck would suggest to give all of the students the challenging assignment and then praise the effort of the students who are still struggling greatly, but too much of a challenge will still be discouraging, and the students may not be able to fully grasp the material in time.

Regardless, having a flexible mindset about ability and achievement is almost always better than a fixed one, especially in areas outside of traditional education. I’m a musician, and I practice often so that I can learn new skills and hone old ones. If I believed that I only had a set amount of musical talent, then I would have no reason to practice. Anything that I could not play the first time, I would believe to be out of my reach. Likewise, if I mastered a piece, I would believe that I would never have to practice that piece ever again. Neither statement is true. A common thing musicians talk about is that for some of us, it may only take 20 minutes to learn a particular passage, and for others, it may take two hours a day for a week. But regardless of that time, we believe that everyone can put in enough effort to eventually learn the passage. I believe this is a great example of having a growth mindset in the real world. 

I really like when Dweck talks about the value of the word “yet,” which adds so much more potential and opportunity to a failure. It reminds me of when I tried to read a Jules Verne novel in late elementary school. The language of the book was dense and nearly impossible for me to read even though I had been told that I had an extremely high reading level. Instead of becoming discouraged and thinking that I wasn’t smart enough to read the book, I decided that I just wasn’t ready yet. I set the book aside for several years and was able to read it much more easily in early high school. I think having a “not yet” mindset would really help a lot of students who I know have been discouraged by past failures and have decided they simply can’t do things.

I’ll be very interested to learn more about growth mindset this semester and to start consciously applying it to my work in and out of class. I think the idea may be flawed in small ways, but overall, it’s a very positive way of thinking and a great way to approach a challenge or even a failure.

Image 1: Tree. Source – matism on Flicker

Image 2: “This may take some time and effort” Source – Growth Mindset & Feedback Cats