Mindsets: “I’m not really good at that…”

By Steven Volk (September 7, 2014)

My mother (who taught Spanish and French), my sister (quite competent in French), and I (Spanish) used to tease my father mercilessly about his inability to speak a language other than English. We drove around Mexico when I was young and laughed with great zest when, after each meal, he would try to ask, in Spanish, for the check (“La cuenta, por favor”). What emerged from his mouth were strange sounds that had quite literally become lost in the translation. The server would look at him in puzzlement until one of us stepped in to the rescue.


For my own part, I still remember the “D” I got on my drawing of an American eagle in the 4th grade from Mrs. Simmons, who (I thought) was a lovely teacher and was just pointing out a reality: I couldn’t draw, never could, still can’t. My father’s problem was that he just couldn’t learn another language. (He often told the story of how, when he was a student at the University of Wisconsin – he became a lawyer; no slouch, he – his Latin teacher gave him a “C” instead of failing him if he promised never to take a foreign language again.)

So, where are these familial stories going? To the mindset research of Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford, which is the subject of today’s “Article of the Week.” Those in psychology or neuroscience will surely know her work. To boil it down drastically: through decades of research, Dweck (and her co-investigators) came to the conclusion that most people have two very different understandings about intellectual abilities and where they come from. Some think that people are just naturally talented in certain areas (foreign languages, art, math, music, etc.), and if you weren’t born with those abilities, there’s not much you can do to change that. Others think that intellectual abilities can be cultivated and developed if you apply yourself to the challenges at hand. It’s not that people don’t differ in their current skill levels, nor that with hard work everyone can be a Serena Williams, a Yo Yo Ma, or an Albert Einstein, but this second group believes that they can improve their underlying abilities if they work at it. (Interestingly, Einstein once wrote, “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s that I stay with problems longer.”) Dweck called these approaches “mindsets,” and labeled the former a “Fixed Mindset,” and the latter a “Growth Mindset.”


Fixed vs. Growth Mindsets

Now, for those who are about to tune away thinking, “why is he peddling this pop motivational claptrap?”, don’t leave just yet. The research is solid (Dweck is a renowned scholar), but more importantly, her research contains implications for how we teach and interact with our students. Consider this. According to “mindset” research, those with a fixed mindset see evaluations (grades, comments written on papers or spoken in class, etc.) as appraisals of their intelligence, how “smart” they are, not as an indication of how much work they put into the paper, or how much reading informed their question in class, or what they learned. To get a “B” on an exam essentially means that they not smart enough to be “A” students. (Or that we, the teachers, got it wrong!)


“Zach is in the gifted-and-talented-and-you’re-not class.” (New Yorker)

The repercussions of this kind of thinking are serious. Most critical, in my mind, is that students who show the characteristics of the “fixed” mindset will try to avoid challenges. Think of it this way – and this is particularly true for our students who have done well throughout their pre-college careers. Receiving a “B” in a course proves that the student is not as intelligent as the “A” student. Now that’s the last thing students want to disclose, so they will avoid challenges and stick to areas where they are (more) convinced of their abilities. Those with a growth mindset, on the other hand, have a greater tendency to take on challenges, persist in the face of adversity, and learn from criticism, largely because (at some level), they have accepted that their brains are just another muscle that needs to be exercised in order to develop.

Dweck summarizes this in the following way. If you have a fixed mindset:

  • Your goal in the classroom is to not look dumb.
  • Having to exert effort makes you feel dumb.
  • If you have a setback, you really feel dumb.

But if you have a growth mindset, then:

  • Your goal in the classroom is to learn.
  • Having to exert effort makes you feel like you’re learning.
  • If you have a setback, you see it as a learning opportunity.

Some years ago, Dweck brought some students into the brain-wave lab at Columbia University to study how their brains behaved as they answered difficult questions and received feedback. She found that those she tagged as having a fixed mindset actually were tuning out information that could help them learn and improve. They were only interested in hearing feedback that reflected directly on their present ability, and didn’t even show an interest in hearing the right answer when they had gotten a question wrong, because they had already failed and it just proved they weren’t able to answer those questions. Those with a growth mindset, on the other hand, were quite attentive to information that could help them expand their existing knowledge and skills, regardless of whether they’d gotten the question right or wrong — in other words, their priority was learning, not the binary of success and failure.

Dweck-Mindset1This should raise the question of whether anything can be done to address mindsets that are already “set in place.” I will never be a Picasso, but will I be able to think of myself as someone who can, with practice, draw? I’m reminded of the famous Stanford marshmallow experiment that showed that young children who could delay gratification (by not eating the marshmallow when the tester left the room) would do markedly better in myriad ways later in life than those with low self-control who gobbled it down after a few seconds. (A new study has suggested other variables are equally critical.) Anyway, I was always left thinking that the poor 4-year old who wolfed down the marshmallow was doomed for life and nothing could be done about it.

Actually, that’s not the case with self-control (“Once you realize that will power is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it,” says Walter Mischel, who devised the experiment), and it’s not the case with mindsets. And that’s where we come in.

What We Can Do

1. With advisees: Mindset research suggests that we need to encourage students to think of learning as a challenge they can take on in areas they are convinced they are “not really good at.” How do we respond when an advisee says that she’s really bad at math so will try to satisfy her QFR requirement some other way? Or when a student says that he’s just not a good writer and so will try to avoid classes that have a lot of writing? We could say that these courses are “good for you,” or that you should go beyond your comfort zone, but that doesn’t give the student any sense of why it’s “good” to go beyond one’s comfort zone since they haven’t succeeded in math or English in the past and, not succeeding again will only confirm that they’re dumb, which is the last thing they want to be revealed about them. What if we talk about Dweck’s research when these moments come up, which can give them a better idea of why challenges aren’t just “good” for you, but are at the basis of learning?

2. With students in our classes: We need to give students a sense that doing well is not a question of having an innate ability in the subject, but of hard work. When we talk about feedback and grades, we should insist on high standards and at the same time give assurances that our students can do it if they apply themselves, although there’s a caveat here. We can help students with advice on effective study and test-taking strategies, but, as Dweck pointed out, “Study skills and learning skills are inert until they’re powered by an active ingredient.” Students may know how to study, but won’t want to if they believe their efforts will be futile, that they are not good at biology and the class they are in will just prove how dumb they are. You need, as well, to “target that belief,” as Dweck puts it, and then you will “see more benefit than you have any reason to hope for.”

Think about adopting some of the following strategies in your classes:

  • Talk about how learning occurs (a little bit of brain science never hurt), and what the research has shown about different mindsets. You can tell stories about former students who thought they would never learn the subject but who, with persistence and effort, ended up being successful in the course or in their later careers.
  • Talk about what it will take to learn the course material effectively —make explicit your expectations for the amount of time they should be putting in and the types of activities they should be engaging in outside of class.
  • Emphasize that “fast” learning, getting assignments or exams done quickly, is not the same as “deep” learning. Often students who take longer to “get it” learn the material more deeply. Faster can at times produce the right answer, but often at the expense of learning.
  • Break difficult or complex tasks down into their component parts so that students will see for themselves their own skills building up over time.
  • Think of how you respond to students in class. For students who answer correctly (or with good insight), just delivering praise (“Great answer, Alexa!”) doesn’t give them or those who didn’t have the right answer any sense of where that great answer came from or where to go from there. Perhaps this might help more: “Good answer from Alexa…she was able to look at the evidence from the last experiment [filling in what that was] and apply it to the new circumstance. Where else can we go with this? What’s still missing?”

3. In terms of our curriculum: Think, for a moment, of the structure of our curriculum. Its premise is the same as that of all liberal arts curricula: depth (major) plus breadth (“general education” requirements). But why the breadth? We have a new “Curriculum Exploration Requirement” that requires students to “complete a number of courses distributed across the curriculum,” and “engage the curriculum broadly from the time they arrive at Oberlin.” We do this “to encourage students to become familiar with a range of scholarly approaches in different subject areas by exploring the curricula in each of the three broad divisions of the College (arts and humanities, social and behavior sciences, and natural sciences and mathematics).” This is not a bad goal, but what if we were to think about it in terms of what mindset research tells us. The point is not just or only exposure to different scholarly, disciplinary or epistemological approaches for the sake of exposure, but an insistence that students challenge themselves in order to build the growth mindset that will serve them well later on. If we require students to take courses in areas they feel “dumb” in, they will often try to satisfy the requirements by essentially avoiding them (“what can I do to satisfy QFR without taking math?”), or, if they do enroll, will not really engage in them (pass/fail?) since to do so and do poorly will only prove how stupid they are. (And, perhaps we enable that: take that philosophy class pass/fail if you’re worried about the grade!) Instead, how do we build challenges into the curriculum?  How do we provide a curriculum that encourages students to realize that they can learn in areas that previously they had closed off? How, to return to Einstein’s quote, can we construct a curriculum that helps all our students stay with problems longer? If we think about our curriculum through Dweck’s research, it suggests that the basis of curricular decisions should not be on breadth for the sake of breadth, but challenge for the sake of challenge. We can do that by engaging the various divisions of the College and Conservatory, but why we do that now becomes clearer.

It should also be clear that everything about mindset research that applies to students in the classroom, applies equally to what they do outside of the classroom: in athletics, leadership, artistic endeavors, etc.

A final point on teaching via mindset research. We set high standards, expect our students to meet them, and will provide them guidance for doing just that. But are we inadvertently introducing cues into the classroom that needlessly (and quite likely unintentionally) tell some students that they don’t belong? We need to think of the examples we use, the posters on our walls, the pronouns we employ. Will they tell some students that math, or computer science, or creative writing is just not for them? I think of a quote from Justice Sonya Sotomayor, in her recent biography.  She said that when she reached college she “felt like a visitor landing in an alien land.” “I have spent my years since [college],” she continued, “while at law school, and in my various professional jobs, not feeling completely a part of the worlds I inhabit.” What can we do to insure that all our students not only feel that they belong, but understand that, if they work hard, they can grow.

OK, then. Back to my drawing of the American eagle!


Some additional resources:

Carol Dweck’s homepage at Stanford links to more than 40 pdf’s of her articles.

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (Ballantine Books, 2007).

Self-theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development (Essays in Social Psychology) (Psychology Press, 2000).

Marina Krakovsky, “The Effort Effect,” Stanford Alumni Magazine (March/April 2007).

Maria Popova, “Fixed vs. Growth: The Two Basic Mindsets that Shape Our Lives,” Brain Pickings (Jan. 29, 2014).

“Mindset and Math/Science Achievement (2008),” National Numeracy (Nov. 21, 2013). The article links to Carol S. Dweck, “Mindsets and Math/Science Achievement.”

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