We Fix It By Not Being Fixed
Recognizing learning as affecting and affected by overall brain function allows us to see how education is intricately tied to our general conceptions of ourselves. How we view ourselves is shaped by what we are taught, and in turn determines how we learn throughout our lives. The research and writings of the personality psychologist Carol Dweck support this understanding of education as training brains. In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success she discusses how the influence of our parents and teachers shapes what she calls our mindsets about our potential and achievement. She identifies a continuum from a fixed-mindset to a growth-mindset and how these personal philosophies determine our responses to challenges and perceived failure. Though she does not focus her studies on the neurobiological level of brain functioning, her research show how important it is as an educator, whether in a formal school system or otherwise, to understand how teaching affects the functioning of the brain.
A fixed-mindset or a growth-mindset, also known as entity theory and incremental theory respectively, refers to how much a person sees his or her characteristics as inborn and unchanging or malleable and able to be improved. Experiments that study these “lay theories” of personality and intelligence show that fixed-minded entity theorist are more likely to be discouraged by failure and avoid challenging situations. Growth-minded incremental theorists, on the other hand, are inspired to work harder, to recognize what needs to be improved in order to succeed in the future (McAdams, 318-319). In an experiment with elementary children in 1988, Dweck and fellow researcher Legget gave children a series of puzzles, beginning with easier ones before giving them much harder ones to solve. They found that some children, when unable to solve the second kind, seemed “helpless,” responding with negative emotions and becoming defensive as the task caused them to doubt their abilities. They also identified a second category of children they called “mastery-oriented” who persisted with the task, rethinking their approaches without letting their frustration guide them. When given the choice, the first group chose to do more of the easier puzzles after failing with the harder ones, while the second group asked to try more of the challenging puzzles. This second group, those inspired by challenge to work harder and improve, are driven by the growth-mindset, while those who prefer to stick with what they are already good exemplify a fixed-mindset (Lilgendahl).
These implicit theories do not only drive young children. When interviewing college students on what makes an ideal student, Dweck identified noticeable differences between the answers of incremental and entity theorists. While the entity theorists cited success as the product of “innate talent” or “natural ability,” where, in Dweck’s words, “you had it or you didn’t,” incremental theorists stressed the importance of being dedicated to continual learning and improvement. For example, one student answered:
A successful student is one whose primary goal is to expand their knowledge and their ways of thinking and investigating the world. They do not see grades as an end in themselves but as means to continue to grow (Dweck, 185).
By seeing their education as a fruitful process rather than a domain where their innate ability is judged, growth-minded students are able to benefit more from school and other learning environments.
Importantly for our area of study in this class, it is not only that this thinking affects our learning, but that our learning affects whether we are fixed or growth-minded. The attitude, expectations, and even the kind of praise from our parents and teachers shape our lay theories of achievement potential. Dweck gives the initially counterintuitive advice that praising a child’s intelligence and ability actually reinforces an unhealthy self-image by leading them to see their performance as a result of unchanging characteristics. While, in Dweck’s words, such praise might “give them a boost, a special glow,” it’s “only for the moment. The minute they hit a snag, their confidence goes out the window and their motivation hits rock bottom. If success means they’re smart, then failure means they’re dumb” (Dweck, 170). In this sense, a certain kind of praise from adult figures, and even to a lesser extent from peers, sets children up to see themselves as innately deficient in failure. Instead, teachers and parents alike should focus their compliments and constructive criticism on the amount of effort students put into their work.
In my experience, it is fairly common for supportive teachers to do this for students at lower achievement levels; when they cannot compliment achievement, they focus on effort or improvement. It is much more rare, however, to hear a straight-A student praised for how much time she puts into her studies; she is said to just be smart. Praise should not just be effort-based only when goals were not otherwise met. By praising the “successful” student’s intelligence, you end up setting him up for failure when he inevitably hits the wall of things he can accomplish quickly and easily. As soon as learning becomes difficult, he will feel that identity threatened.
When I was first learning about these theories this semester, I was astonished by how true it rang for me. As a child, I was usually in the top of my class, able to do tasks with less effort than many around me, and my adult role models praised my intelligence. As I have gotten older, I find I am discouraged quickly by assignments I will not necessarily do well on; I certainly do not relish academic challenge the way that I know is beneficial for learning. It is unfair and inaccurate to say I blame my parents and teachers for this but, looking back and considering what I now know about how the brain sees itself, I recognize how my upbringing reinforced a fixed-mindset that I have to overcome in order to tackle and get the most out of difficulty.
As I have implied, low standards in the classroom and other learning environments do students no favors. In Dweck’s words, it “leads to poorly educated students who feel entitled to easy work and lavish praise” (Dweck, 187). While as a teacher you want to be encouraging and caring, praising students when they achieve little only boosts self-esteem temporarily without helping them learn more. Instead, “growth-minded teachers tell students the truth [about the quality of their performance] and then give them the tools to close the gap” between what they have accomplished so far and what they are able to further accomplish (Dweck, 193). They celebrate working hard to reach new heights rather than setting goals that are easy to reach. Their students, in turn, learn to value challenge and success as personal improvement through hard work. It is inherently a more process oriented approach, where students do not feel like their education is about being judged and evaluated but rather about the personal growth from learning.
These abstract goals have been referenced many times in our classroom and in many other forums on education, and Dweck’s research presents a concrete way to achieve them. By understanding these ways in which the brain theorizes about itself, we as students, teachers, or parents can act on a day to day level to promote healthy implicit theories about the self that stimulate continual learning.
Even considered on its own, incremental theory seems to me to reflect much of what we have valued throughout our class. By this theory of the self, you are constantly changing and improving, much like reevaluating one’s summary of observations in the loopy science model. Nothing is fixed and absolute, but rather in need of constant reevaluation. To the incremental theorist, just like the loopy scientist, failure is more valuable than conventional success, teaching us where we are in need of improvement. We discussed what we could teach in a world where potentially nothing is true. It seems to me that that is as good a time as any to teach that nothing is fixed, but rather always able to be improved if we believe in our own ability to make the changes we need.
Dweck, Carol. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. 2006. 168-206.
Lilgendahl, Jennifer. Lecture and Powerpoint from Sept. 30th in PSYCH215- Personality Psychology at Haverford College.
McAdams, Dan P. The Person: An Introduction to the Science of Personality Psychology. 5th Edition. Hobokenn NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2009.