It can be exciting when research confirms what was believed in the past but has become less accepted. Carol Dweck’s research is one example. Her research is on our assumptions about talents and intelligence which she terms “mindset”. Those with a fixed mindset believe that talents and intelligence are an endowment and cannot be changed. Those with a growth mindset view talents and intelligence as malleable and that they can be developed through engaged effort. Dweck’s research demonstrates that our mindsets have profound effects on our lives and shows that mindsets can be changed…
Children who are praised for their intelligence develop fixed mindsets and shy away from challenges because they do not want to fail. With a fixed mindset, to fail is to be a failure. Children who are praised for their efforts develop growth mindsets. They invite challenges as opportunities. When they are not successful, they do not think that they can’t be successful in the future. It does not make them a failure. As we develop a fixed mindset, we stop working to improve and focus on protecting our image. If we believe in endowed talent, we are diminished by having to work at it. With a growth mindset, we are reinforced by what we have gained from our efforts and persistence.
Intelligence testing has been employed in support of fixed mindsets which is an example of the misinterpretation of science. Alfred Binet developed the first intelligence test a century ago and wrote in his book Modern Ideas About Children:
A few modern philosophers…assert that an individual’s intelligence is a fixed quantity, a quantity which cannot be increased. We must protest and react against this brutal pessimism… With practice, training, and above all, method, we manage to increase our attention, our memory, our judgment and literally become more intelligent than we were before.
Our society is fascinated by the naturally gifted, but further investigation supports than most talented musicians, composers, artists, and athletes have spent 10,000 hours developing their skills. Children are misled when they observe adults who effortlessly perform tasks which children have not mastered. Since they cannot see the adult as a child, it appears that these tasks are natural.
Also, the fixed mindset is easier. It does not hold you responsible. You don’t have to work. It may not be nice to be dumb or clumsy, but it is not your fault. Beliefs in natural abilities and inabilities can be so accepted that it is not realized that this is not a natural law. We are born with differences but those differences do not determine the outcomes. When I was in high school outside New York City, there were no sports for girls other than cheerleading. Most of us accepted that girls were not competitive and sports were not good for girls. How many would believe that today?
Robert Sternberg, the present-day guru of intelligence, writes that the major factor in whether people achieve expertise “is not some fixed prior ability, but purposeful engagement.” P. 5
To improve, we need an accurate self-appraisal of our own skills but that is not possible without participating and competing. We have the potential to learn from our successes and from our failures. With a fixed mindset, success at a task means that we are a success, we are smart, and we are talented. Failure at a task means that we are a failure, we are dumb, and we are not talented. With a growth mindset, we understand our current status and realize that we can do better with work.
Babies are born with a drive to reach out and explore. This is diminished when they and others start to judge them for what they did instead of for their effort, their progress, and their ability to learn from instruction. As we develop a fixed mindset we stop working to improve and work to protect our image. If we believe in natural talent, we are diminished by having to work. With a growth mindset, we are buoyed by what our effort and persistence have accomplished.
John Wooden, the legendary basketball coach, says you aren’t a failure until you start to blame. What he means is that you can still be in the process of learning from your mistakes until you deny them. P. 37
We as parents, teachers, doctors, and therapists will be most effective in developing growth mindsets in our children, students, and patients when we nurture growth mindsets in ourselves. We need to be careful of what we say and how we say it. Like with other characteristics, most of us are on a continuum. We have been exposed to fixed mindsets and have accepted them. It is easy to fall back into that trap despite many examples of growth which demonstrate the misconceptions of the past. Many children with Down Syndrome now learn to read. Girls can be good at math and science. Women can play basketball.
The importance of work does not mean that children should not play and that school can’t be fun. Play creates many opportunities for growth which are not duplicated under other circumstances. We learn best when we are engaged and are engaged when we are having fun or are challenged. To handle the stresses of life, we need to be resilient. We are more resilient with a growth mindset. We cannot have a secure growth mindset without responding to challenges and setbacks. Our children cannot learn from our mistakes. They can benefit from our encouragement and example.