Occasionally, in the flood of articles, information, and updates we read online, something comes along that makes a quantifiable difference in our lives. It happened for me some years ago when I read an article about the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. According to the author (whose name and information I’ve completely forgotten), a fixed mindset grows out of the idea that we are born with all the talent and intelligence we will ever have. A growth mindset, by contrast, suggests that our brains are highly adaptable and that no matter our level of skill or proficiency early in life, we are capable of enormous progress in virtually any discipline.
Now, I’m quick to dismiss the latest fad theory, and I’m no lover of terms and phrases that muddy up an issue in an attempt to make the writer/speaker sound like an expert. But I’ve found that understanding fixed vs. growth mindset is simple and highly practical.
Let’s start at the beginning, with a newborn. No one can honestly look at a baby and say that he or she has all the necessary skills to make it to independent adulthood. But parents are prone to absurdities. We can watch a child struggle to master the use of a spoon or walk without falling and call the child “brilliant,” “advanced,” “gifted.” We speak out of a fixed mindset, hoping our child is naturally gifted, even as we watch him fail repeatedly, adapt, and grow. How many times have you heard a mother rattle off the ages when her children crawled, walked, spoke, and read? If I have to hear one more mom talk about her five-year-old reading Dickens, I think I’ll lose my lunch. But do you see? She is a slave to the fixed mindset. That mother believes her child was born with all the talent and intelligence he will ever have, and the more desperate she is to believe in his superior gifts, the more eager she is to prove them.
The fixed mindset takes an even greater hold when a child heads off to school. A student who learns new material with ease is labeled “smart.” Another who learns differently, or who doesn’t thrive in a classroom setting is labeled “dumb” or “slow.” Within a few years, both groups are in a panic over quizzes and tests, the “smart” ones because they believe they must continually prove their intelligence, and the “slow” ones because they’re already convinced they will fail.
Over time, the beliefs that undergird these two mindsets come to dominate our thinking. An adult with a fixed mindset will suffer from a perpetual fear of exposure. She won’t want you to read her poem, because if you think it is poorly executed, then perhaps that is evidence that she was born without poetic genius. She is terrified that you will discover the truth about her. She is terrified that she will discover the truth about herself. Failure, in this way of thinking, is a confirmation of irrevocable inadequacy.
A person with a growth mindset, on the other hand, is willing to take risks. She may have written a truly heinous poem, but she is willing to share it with friends and colleagues. She knows that, just like a child learning to take its first steps, growth requires practice, trail-and-error, and good feedback. She is not threatened by the possibility that her poem is a failure, because failure is no indication of innate ability. Failure is an opportunity to improve.
We took some time in recent months to do a short study on inventors. I was beginning to hear the “I’m just not good at this” argument from my kids, and I wanted to nip it in the bud. There’s no place in our home for the anxiety, frustration, and defeat that accompany a fixed mindset. So we read up on inventors like George Washington Carver, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Edison. We discovered how often these men failed in their experiments. Many revolutionary inventors were utter failures in school. The thing that set the great ones apart was their persistence, their belief that they were making progress. They maintained a growth mindset while others lost faith in their abilities and gave up.
We worked on changing our vocabulary. Phrases like “It’s too hard,” became “This is challenging, but if I keep at it, I will improve. Instead of “I’m not good at math,” we tried to say, “I can learn from my mistakes and do better next time.”
Picture books made our study more fun. I highly recommend What Do You Do with an Idea? and What Do You Do with a Problem? by Kobi Yamada, The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes by Mark Pett and Gary Rubinstein, Hana Hashimoto, Sixth Violin, by Chieri Uegaki and Qin Leng, The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spiers, Your Fantastic, Elastic Brain by JoAnn Deak, Brave Irene by William Steig, Flight School by Lita Judge, and Emmanuel’s Dream by Laurie Ann Thompson. (For a great resource on female inventors, try Girls Think of Everything by Catherine Thimmesh and Melissa Sweet.)
I wish I could report that a growth mindset has revolutionized our school days and all our personal endeavors, but change takes time. What I’m most grateful for is an understanding of fixed vs. growth mindset, so that I can practice speaking to my children in a way that encourages them and avoids setting limits on their abilities. It’s a good place to begin.
(If you’ve had success in implementing a growth mindset in your classroom or homeschool, please let us know in the comments section. We’d love to hear from you.)
Photo courtesy of Carey Pace. http://careypace.com
She never saw any of this coming.
She also had no idea of becoming either a mother or a writer, yet here she is, living in Nashville with a husband and two kids and three published books to her name. She ponders the humor of God and the strange adventure of living while she drinks kombucha on the porch, or plans new homeschool units, or reads everything from Emily Bronte to Dave Barry to Betty MacDonald.
You can find her books and an occasional poem or some such at www.helenasorensen.com.