26 February 2016

"Growth Mindset" is the Buzzword of 2016 - and That's a Good Thing

I first encountered the Growth Mindset nearly ten years ago in a New York Magazine article titled "How Not to Talk to Your Kids". The central point of the article was that when a child succeeds at a task, it makes a big difference whether you praise them for their effort or praise them for their talent or ability. Praising a child for their effort is associated with a growth mindset. It fosters children's belief that they can overcome obstacles and increase their mental capacity.

The article I read was based on the research of Dr. Carol Dweck. There is a large and growing body of evidence showing that students with a growth mindset achieve more and overcome challenges more consistently. It's also supported by contemporary research in psychology and neurology. "The brain is like a muscle." is a common metaphor, "Giving it a harder workout makes you smarter." Indeed, continuing research shows that IQ is malleable and can be increased.

In recent years, both anecdotal and rigorous evidence for Growth Mindset has increased with books, school programs, and parental training programs. Mindset Works is an advocacy organization dedicate to the concept. The result is an explosion of Growth Mindset interest in late 2015 and 2016.

And here are some recent examples:

Risk of a Buzzword

Growth Mindset is based on solid evidence and sound psychology. But as the buzzword starts trending we risk failure and discreditation of the idea due to enthusiastic but misguided efforts. A colleague recently worried that growth mindset might fall victim to the Self-Esteem fad of the 1990s. To be sure, the right kind of praise is connected with growth mindset. But equally important are fostering the determination to overcome obstacles and the safety to fail.

Some years ago I had the privilege of being a chaperone when my children's school competed in the Utah Shakespearian Festival. It was a small school and the drama team was composed of the majority of the high school - grades 9 through 12. I watched in amazement as these average kids rehearsed dramatic scenes, choreographed their own dance pieces, and performed a breathtakingly creative ensemble scene from Much Ado About Nothing. In the sweepstakes, they took second place against much larger and better-equipped schools. I chatted with teachers and other parents about what qualities enabled our school to perform so well without cherry-picking the best drama students for the team. We decided that an important factor is the emotional safety students had at the school. The cultural climate enabled students to take risks and regularly fail with minimal fear of ridicule. The courage to step out and take risks is especially important in the performing arts. Years later I found corroborating evidence in Brene Brown's research on vulnerability

Growth Mindset has as much or more to do with proper response to failure as it has to do with proper praise for success. Like a scientist performing experiments, students should be encouraged to treat failures as opportunities to learn and gain insight. Indeed, study of a failure can yield new understanding whereas success simply confirms existing knowledge.

Learning Mindsets

The Raikes Foundation considers a broader concept of "Learning Mindsets". This includes growth mindset and adds other skills that help students "actively participate, work through problems, think critically, and approach learning with energy and enthusiasm." Andy Calkins calls this "Agency." Of these skills; which include grit, determination, self-advocacy, and confidence; growth mindset seems to be getting the attention in 2016. If people study the concept and implement it well, that will be a good thing!