The Truth About Ability and Accomplishment

Carol Dweck starts the 3rd chapter of Mindset with an interesting question. She encouraged people to imagine the work of inventor of the lightbulb, Thomas Edison. Most people describe Edison toiling alone in a room. Maybe you just did also. Why is it that we envision people doing great things, working in isolation? In fact, Edison had a large team of over 30 researchers in a very expensive lab.

I love this particular reading because it gets to the heart of what we do every day with our students, and most likely to the heart of what you grapple with them on, school achievement and their mindset.

Dweck studied students as they transitioned to middle school. They followed students for two years asking if students believed their intelligence was fixed or something they could develop?

“The transition to junior high is a time of great challenge for many students. The work gets much harder, the grading policies toughen up, the teaching becomes less personalized. And all this happens while students are coping with their new adolescent bodies and roles. Grades suffer, but not everyone’s suffer equally” (57). Perhaps you experienced this with your own children.

By now, it should be very predictable what they found. Students with a growth mindset grew over the two years and those with a fixed fell immediately and continued to plummet over the next two years. This, even though the academic records of the two groups were mirror images of the other to the point of entering middle school, the groups took a divergent path. In the elementary environment the groups earned similar scores, but with increased rigor, a difference emerged.

How did the two groups explain their grades?

Fixed Mindset middle schooler Growth Mindset middle schooler
“I am the stupidest” Explained feeling overwhelmed but digging in to do what was needed.
“I suck in math” They behaved like George Danzig
“Because the teacher is on crack”  

If you took the time to read each column, you might ask, who is George Danzig? He was a graduate student at Berkeley. One day he copied some problems off the board that he thought were homework. He was running behind, maybe a little bit unorganized. When he sat down to do the work later, he found it to be really challenging and he struggled quite a bit to solve the problems. It actually took him several days. But he persisted, and was surprised to learn, upon returning to class, that the equations were not his homework at all, but examples of two equations that had never been solved. A growth mindset at work.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is what Dweck calls the low-effort syndrome. “Our students with a fixed mindset who were facing the hard transitions saw it as a threat. It threatened to unmask their flaws and turn them from winners into losers. In fact, in the fixed mindset, adolescence is one big test… And in the fixed mindset, a loser is forever” (58).

So, what do fixed mindset students exhibit when pressed with challenge? Quite simply, they stop exerting effort. Why? If you have to exert effort, you must not be smart. Dweck says that the fixed mindset students would tend to identify with a statement like, “In school my main goal is to do things as easily as possible so I don’t have to work very hard” (58). Ever heard or seen that in or from your child?

Most interesting is WHY Dweck says kids are forced into this kind of thinking. “They view adults as saying, ‘Now we will measure you and see what you’ve got.’ And they are answering, “No you won’t’” (58). One thing I say to parents and students all the time is, in middle school, this is really the age when students get to choose. Even when that choice is destructive, they still get to choose. They do not necessarily know why they are making the choice they are making, but they absolutely choose. And there is little you or I can do about it. Well, that is, there is very little we can do about them shutting down. What we can have influence over? How they view their learning. Dweck and others have shown us that we can alter the mindset of our children and ourselves. We do it in what we reinforce.

You know, about 30 years ago, researchers from places like Harvard University told us that grades were probably more detrimental than helpful. I will admit to you that for most of my career I thought that was touchy-feely nonsense. Grades are a reality and we have to evaluate students using them. I am really not so sure anymore.

I have told this story to students and parents in meetings before, so I apologize if you have already heard this. But allow me to get very personal for a moment.

I was not a very good student when I was younger. I grew up in a public school system that was a travesty for students (still is, actually). My parents rescued me by first moving me to a private school and then moving to a place where the education was much better. But when I got there, at 17, I was really, really far behind. I went to a college that was not as good as the ones my kids are attending. Early in college, I would not study because when I did not do well, it meant that maybe I didn’t belong in college. I made it through by learning how I learned best and even finished the last three semesters on the dean’s list.

When I selected a graduate school, I was looking for the best school that would admit me. Somehow, I was able to score high enough on the GRE to get into a very good History program at Villanova. I took a class on  the American Civil War (1861-1865) with a professor that had very high expectations. I made the mistake of selecting a book to read and write on that took an opposing view to the view that my professor held. How coudl I know this? When I handed in my paper, he tore the work apart. My perspective was flawed, my analysis off base. Now, earlier in my educational career, my literal worth as a student would have been wrapped up I that paper. But something had changed. When I got it back, I was furious. How could he take the views of the author and hold them against me? I received a B-. At 16 I would have been thrilled. At 30? Furious.

So, what did I do? We had a large culminating project to research a Civil War soldier below the rank of Colonel and to produce a paper of the life of that soldier. I felt that his present evaluation of my ability was an incorrect view. He had focused on the wrong thing. I started the project and began to get interested. I found myself being more interested in what I could learn about this soldier who only fought for 3 month and a few days before being discharged because he got so ill he could not continue to serve. I went to Washington D.C to visit the National Archives. I held documents that he himself had written. The man’s story was fascinating. He suffered his whole life from his illness contracted while in the army. He fought to get a military pension, but couldn’t because he was discharged improperly. In reading the regimental history, his unit and the hospital he was in were under attack the day he was released and someone probably did not complete the paperwork because they were most likely being shot at. He ran for political office at 90. The house he lived in still stands along a railroad that has been in existence since 1865.

The professor faded into the background. I asked for an extension to my project because I was not quite finished. My parents were traveling through Indiana and agreed to stop by the courthouse in the county he lived in to see if they could get more information on him. I corresponded with a great-granddaughter who sent me a picture of him on his wedding day, several family shots and a flyer from his political campaign. I would not use the word obsessed, but I was really enjoying getting to know this very interesting man. By this time, I really, really could have cared less about Dr. Know-it-all and his evaluation of my intellect. I submitted my binder, a month after the due date, about three inches thick. I no longer cared what grade he gave me.

The growth mindset. The most powerful thing we can develop in a student.

Next Time: Chapter 3 – The danger of praise and positive labels


Mindsets change the meaning of failure.

Last year, a parent said to me, “You know, all of us are of the two mindsets at various time. You never really can avoid a fixed mindset completely.” Exactly! That is why this topic is so important. Yes, we all struggle with fixed and growth mindsets, but how they change the meaning of failure is critical to the growth and development of our children.

Believe me. Imagine Back to School Night, when we have 500 parents in our school, scurrying to classrooms, most of them happy, some of them maybe not so much, I am sometimes driven to a fixed mindset. Is our school good enough? What about that change we made. Has it brought about the improvement that we desired? Are we doing enough? Is failure an option for us? So many people are depending on us. Kind of drives me to not want to take risks.

What do you do when confronted with failure? What do your kids do? Brace yourself. Let me begin on a personal level. I really dislike losing to someone who is just luckier than me. If you are better, and I lose to your skill, I don’t love that, but I can live with it. I really struggle when you are just lucky and you think it is skill that beat me. I remember “Billy” as a kid, a foot shorter and about a hundred times less skilled in basketball, beating me on a LUCKY shot. Come on Billy – rematch. You can’t make that shot again!

Ok, are you ready for the Dr. Leever psycho-therapy couch session? My family loves games. Any games. Card games. Board games. Drawing ridiculous picture games. They play them all the time. Kids: “Dad, wanna play?” Dad: “Nah, I am engrossed in this cooking show.” “I would, but I was just gonna go wash the car in 120 degree heat.” Why this avoidance? Honestly, I developed some sort of fixed mindset with my intellect and ability long ago in some game (no, it wasn’t Billy, he was just lucky, ONCE) and I have avoided them for most of my life. How ridiculous is that?

Carol Dweck confronts this head on in pointing out that failure is a painful experience. She tells the story of Jim Marshall, a football player, who picked up a lose ball and ran the length of the field to score – in the wrong end zone. He scored for the other team. This was on national television. He said that at halftime, he sat, dejected and wondered what to do. He could shrink away in disgrace, or do something great. He went out in the second half, played spectacularly and helped the team win the game, erasing his mistake. But he didn’t erase it. He began to go out and speak about it, to tell others how he had managed to overcome the fear, face it, grip it, and use it to be better both as a player, but more importantly, as a person.

“If failure means that you lack competence or potential – that you are a failure – where do you go from there?” (Pg. 35) Take a look at this graphic. Dweck studied seventh graders. The question was how do you respond to academic failure, a poor grade on a test.

Growth Mindset Fixed Mindset
“Study harder for the next test” “`If you don’t have the ability, why waste your time?”
  “I would seriously consider cheating”
  “I would find another way”

If you are deeply ingrained with the fixed mindset, you might seek someone who is worse off than you to give your self-esteem a boost. When college students were given the chance to look at the tests of others after doing poorly on their own test. Guess what happened? Those with a growth mindset wanted to see the test of those who had done better to try to see if they could remedy the deficiency. Those of a fixed mindset “chose to look at the tests of the people who had done really poorly.” (Pg. 36) I suppose this is why I liked playing basketball with Billy, on all but one day anyways. But wait, it also explains why Billy kept coming back to play with me. Hmmm.

This is a very entertaining and enlightening part of the book. Go back and re-read the part labeled “Mindsets Change the Meaning of Failure” (Pg. 36-44 in my paperback version) Fascinating stuff. Dweck believes that she has linked the fixed mindset to depression, having studied college students in the second semester. She uses a number of other great illustrations to make her point.

Consider the tortoise and the hare. We all know the story and how the hare is foolish and the tortoise is what we should all really want to be. But Dweck points out, who really wants to be the tortoise? No one. “We just want to be a less foolish hare.” (Pg. 38)

Dweck points out that there are high risks associated with effort. For those with a fixed mindset, “great geniuses are not supposed to need it. So needing it casts a shadow on your ability.” (Pg. 43) Secondly, effort robs the fixed mindset of all excuses. “Without effort, you can always say ‘I could have been (fill in the blank).’ But once you try, you can’t say that anymore” (Pg. 43).

What can I take away from all of this? Well, Billy may have been motivated by a growth mindset when it came to basketball. I am pretty sure that I had a fixed mindset with Billy, but was willing to grow when I was playing with others. I guess I also need to admit that my intellect and ability is not wrapped up in winning at a card or ridiculous drawing game. For your own children, what does failure mean to them? How can you help them embrace growth and failure to make them stronger and more resilient? Keep reading or run out and get the book Mindset for yourself.

My kids will be so happy with my mindset shift. Let the games begin!

Next Time: The Truth About Ability and Accomplishment

Is success about learning, or proving you are smart?

I love the angry letter that Carol Dweck received from a teacher after taking one of her surveys. Here it is (from pages 28-29)

To Whom It May Concern:

Having completed the educator’s portion of your recent survey, I must request that my results be excluded from the study. I feel that the study itself is scientifically unsound…

Unfortunately, the test uses a faulty premise, asking teachers to make assumptions about a given student based on nothing for than a number on a page…Performance cannot be based on one assessment. You cannot determine the slope of a line given only one point, as there is no line to begin with. A single point in time does not show trends, improvement, lack of effort, or mathematical ability…

Validation – this is what we all want. There is the intense need in some to feel validated, to feel smart and to feel special. Sure, we all want that, but what are the destructive forces that can impact how you view yourself – your mindset? What forces us to seek validation in one thing and not in another?

Dweck tells this anecdote from early in her research. “One day my doctoral student, Mary Bandura, and I were trying to understand why some students were so caught up in improving their ability, while others could just let go and learn. Suddenly we realized that there were two meanings to ability, not just one: affixed ability that needs to be proven, and a changeable ability that can be developed through learning.” (pg. 15)

We know that Dweck tells us there are two mindsets, but why is one preferential for learners over the other? It really comes down to whether success is about learning or about proving you’re smart. I know, skeptics are leaning back in the chair, getting ready to hit delete.

Consider this question from Dweck. “When do you feel smart?”

Fixed Mindset Growth Mindset
“When is easy for me but other people can’t do it.” “When it is really hard, and I try really hard, and I could do something I could not do before.’
“When I finish something fast, and it’s perfect.” “When I work on something for a long time and I start to figure it out.”

Want a quick gauge of where your child is? Ask that one at the dinner table. See what they say. If they have developed a fixed mindset, their answers will be closer to the answers on the left. If they are buying into the fact their intelligence just might be flexible, their answer might reflect the thinking on the right.

Parent Homework – Due date – Right now

Dweck explains, “In one world – the world of fixed traits – success is proving you’re smart or talented. Validating yourself. In the other – the world of changing qualities – it’s about stretching yourself to learn something new.” (Pg 15) One of the hardest things that parents struggle to understand in our school is our attempt to de-emphasize grades. It is not that they are bad, it is just that, too often, they serve to prove that kids “are smart” rather then “getting smarter.” Let me repeat that because there is a chasm that exists between grades showing that you “are smart” and a grade showing that you are “getting smarter.”

Some sort of marker of progress is necessary for growth, I suppose (although I do not feel as strongly about this as I once did). The problem with a fixed mindset is that with it comes a belief that effort is a bad thing. It means you’re not smart. Not talented. “Kids who are born smart, ‘don’t do mistakes.’”(Pg. 16)

In the realm of the growth mindset, it is effort that makes you smart or talented. Benjamin Barber said, “I divide the world into learner and non-learners.” (Pg.16)

What we need to remember is that if we make success about proving you are smart, we are probably nudging students towards a fixed mindset. Watch your child try something hard. Watch them fail. Hope they fail. This gives you a chance to see what they do when something does not come easy, to see if they are learning, or proving they are smart. Don’t worry, I will tell you in advance, that we know that we can manipulate mindsets in kids (for the good and the bad). Our goal is to learn how to build a growth mentality in our children and ourselves.

Next time: Mindsets change the meaning of failure.

So, what are the two mindsets and why should I care?

“The views you adopt for yourself, profoundly affect the way your lead your life.” (Pg. 6)

Dweck tells us that Darwin and Tolstoy were non-exceptional students and considered very ordinary. Would you believe that one of the great golfers of all time, Ben Hogan, was uncoordinated as a child? Artist Cindy Sherman failed her first art course. Michael Jordan was cut from the JV basketball team. Actress Geraldine Page was told to quit for lack of talent. So, what makes them different from others?

According to Carol Dweck it is the mindset that you possess and develop. “Believing your qualities are carved in stone – the fixed mindset – creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over again (pg. 6).” I see this all the time in students. An assignment is a test of who they are. A conclusion. A final judgment. What happens if I try something hard and cannot do it? What does this mean?

But there is another kind of mindset. The “growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things that you cultivate through effort (pg. 7).” An assignment is a gauge of what I need to learn. A suggested path. A marker of where I am today. If I try something hard and can’t do it, what happens if I back up rethink and try again? It means I haven’t yet figured a way through this problem?

To illustrate the point, Dweck give us this scenario that she used in a study. She asked people to imagine a bad day. Speaking to young adults she asked them to imagine getting a C+ on an important paper, getting a parking ticket and also calling a friend for sympathy and getting brushed off. None of these are earth-shattering events. But what when asked if all three of these things happened on the same day, how would young people respond? She had identified people she felt were of each respective mindsets and asked them about their day. What would you think? What would you feel? What would you do? (Pg. 8-9). Consider the differences in their responses.

Those identified as having a fixed mindset:

“I’m a total failure.” I’m a loser.” “The world is out to get me.” I have no life. “I’d feel worthless and dumb – everyone’s better than me.” “Life stinks. I’m stupid. Nothing good ever happens to me.” (Ever heard one of those from your children?)

Coping for the fixed mindset:

“I wouldn’t bother to put so much time and effort into doing well in anything.” “Stay in bed.” “Yell at someone if I had the chance to.” “Listen to music and pout.” “Cry.” “Break something.” (Again, maybe you have heard something like this.)

So, how were the responses different from those with a perceived growth mindset?

“I need to try harder in class, be more careful when parking the car, and wonder if my friend had a bad day.” “The C+ would tell me that I’d have to work a lot harder in the class, but I have the rest of the semester to pull the grade up.”

Coping for those with a growth mindset?

“I’d think about studying harder (or…in a different way) for the next class, I’d pay the ticket and I’d work things out with my friend the next time we speak.” “Work hard on my next paper, speak to the teacher, be more careful where I park or contest the ticket, and find out what’s wrong with my friend.”

Here is a chart that might reflect the two mindsets (adapted from pages 9-10)

Growth Mindset Fixed Mindset
Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Nothing ventured, nothing lost.
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. If at first you don’t succeed, you probably didn’t have the ability.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. If Rome wasn’t built in a day, maybe it wasn’t meant to be.

Dweck points out “most people’s ideas about risk and effort grow out of the most basic mindset (pg. 10).” There is pessimism in the fixed mindset that leads them to draw conclusions about their ability and in doing so places a cap in their ability to achieve new things.

I know, this is pricking some of us badly. Some have even stopped reading. Don’t quit. We ALL experience the fixed mindset at some point. Is this what you want for your children?

Dweck raises an interesting question. So, if people have a growth mindset, this probably means that they have an over-inflated sense of what they can accomplish, right? Well, this may be true to an extent, how else can we explain someone testing a light bulb for over a thousand times before it worked (A. G. Bell)? But really, Dweck say no, this is not the case.

She studied to see how good the two mindsets were at gauging their abilities. Results: People do not estimate their ability very well, but the fixed mindset subset accounted for almost all of the inaccuracy (Pg. 11).

Perhaps the greatest talent (and benefit) of the growth mindset is that it allows people to turn the greatest “setbacks into future success” (pg 11). Last month I left you with why should you care about the mindset of your child. What do you want for your child? The love of challenge? Belief in effort? Perseverance in the face of setbacks? (Pg. 12)

You may want to get Mindset and follow along for the next few months. This will make a difference for you and your child. If you are still reading, congratulations! You have passed the first test of holding, mastering or at least considering a growth mindset for yourself and your child.

Next time: Is success about learning, or proving you’re smart?

Mindset – By Carol Dweck

“It’s not always the people who start out the smartest, that end up the smartest.” (pg. 5)
Mindset – The New Psychology of Success, 2007.

Many of you have heard me reference a book by Dr. Carol Dweck called Mindset. When I first read this book, it revolutionized the way I viewed learning. I have had the privilege of coaching sports for years. When I was just beginning, I worked with a coach who had a long track record of success as a basketball coach. One day he coached me to never reward ability, but instead to focus on and reward effort only. I admit I did not really understand why, but began to implement this. Dweck’s work gave me the answer for why he was right. You see, if you reward ability, a player can never really give you more ability. With ability, they have what they have. If you reward effort, they can always match or even exceed the effort they last expended, and this in turn, can actually grow ability. It is a subtle, but significant twist on thinking.

This pathway has continued and my understanding continues to grow as I observe students and work with them to improve their learning. I think I am going to suggest a pathway that some of you may choose to walk along with me. Your immediate task? Obtain for yourself a copy of Mindset.

I am writing an introduction today and will follow up in the future with another piece on Mindset. My intention is to write throughout the semester as you read the book and together we will work to better understand the way your kids think about themselves as learners. I do not think this will be a waste of your time. In fact, some have told me this book made all the difference for them as parents. I suspect that at a minimum, you may find these notes helpful. So, who is Carol Dweck and why should we listen to her?

Carol Dweck (now of Stanford University) is a researcher who wanted to study how people managed failure. So, she set up a series of puzzles where she could watch children attempt difficult work, and fail. She knew how she responded to failure and assumed that others would respond the same way. You either cope with it or you do not. She admits that she really, really thought that intelligence was fixed. “You were smart or you weren’t, and failure meant you weren’t” (pg. 4). One would remain smart if they could “arrange successes and avoid failures” (pg. 4). She set out to prove intelligence was fixed and to discover how those were not as talented could properly manage their failure.

She was blown away by what she found in some children. “Confronted with the hard puzzles, one ten-year-old boy pulled up his chair, rubbed his hands together, smacked his lips, and cried out, ‘I love a challenge!’ Another, sweating away on the puzzles, looked up with a pleased expression and said with authority, ‘You know, I was hoping this would be informative!’” (pg. 3) What she was seeing was children who were finding joy…in failure. As they struggled, they were getting smarter.

The deeper Dweck dove into the subject, the more she found that she was wrong. Alfred Binet, created the IQ test, to identify students who were not performing well in schools so that special programs could be designed to rescue them from a system that was failing them. That surely is not how IQ tests have been used in my quarter century of education.

Dweck quotes a leader in the study of intelligence, Robert Sternberg, who calls intelligence “not some fixed prior ability, but purposeful engagement” (pg. 5). If I could wave my magic wand to sprinkle magic dust in our school, that would be it. Purposeful engagement.