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.

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