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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
So, where are these familial stories going? To the mindset research of Carol Dweck, a
psychology professor at Stanford. 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
Fixed vs. Growth Mindsets
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 are not smart enough to be “A” students. (Or
that we, the teachers, got it wrong!)
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.
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? 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!
1. Describe in your own words the difference between Growth Mindset and Fixed
2. Describe your mindset when you think about writing in English.
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