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