Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Met The Mindset Expert

I recently had the good fortune to spend two days with the mindset guru, Dr. Carol Dweck. Dr. Dweck gave two talks in Memphis, one to Memphis City School administrators and faculty, and the other, a public address at one of the independent schools that I work with. I arranged for her to come speak about how understanding mindsets will make each of us happier and more effective at whatever it is that we do, but especially for parents, students, and teachers.

Dr. Dweck is currently the Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. She studies the psychology of human potential. Her work bridges developmental psychology, social psychology, and personality psychology, and examines the processes people use to structure their self-concept and how self-concept guides behavior. In her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dr. Dweck explains that there are two basic mindsets – a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. She explains how our mindset shapes our whole mental world and determines our potential for success. She shows how it is possible to change your mindset at any stage in life to achieve success and see things in a new way.

Basically, how you approach learning, growth, and challenge, with what belief system and attitude you apply yourself, will influence your outcome. If you accept that learning is about making mistakes and faltering and asking questions and struggling to match new information to what you already know, then you will learn more and you will learn easier. Conversely, if you are fixated on the outcome, on being the best, on getting attention for being the best, you will think twice about engaging in any situation that holds the risk of knocking you from your comfortable "I am the Best" pillar. These fixed mindset learners are actually de-motivated to learn because the outcome is uncertain and offers a great risk to their status and self-concept. This is often why those with great talent are washed up and passed by those with persistence and dogged determination, in effect those who learned how to learn. Those who have been taught to have an open mind, to question, to think, and to work hard without quitting in frustration. These are the kids that break through.

Dr. Dweck raises even deeper, more interesting, and exceptionally wide-reaching perspectives in her work in this question how do we develop our mindsets? She investigates what the factors are in our environment that lead us to embracing either a fixed or a growth mindset. The kicker is that it is parents, grandparents, and teachers that spend many hours praising outcome and not creating awareness of process that engendered children with a fixed mindset, afraid to take risks, afraid to challenge and investigate held beliefs, willing to cheat to maintain their status as "Best." She tells us that we have created a culture of unteachable athletes because we are unwilling to go through the process of developing talents. Much like Ed Hallowell writes about in his book The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness, parents, grandparents, and teachers act as if they can just staple self-esteem onto children you are so great, you are the smartest, you are the best. Children, both Dr. Dweck and Dr. Hallowell concur, interpret this praise as you love me because I am smart, great, and the best. So, if I am ever less than smart, great, and the best, you don't love me. Dr. Dweck calls this paradox the inverse power of praise. It is worth challenging our beliefs, motivations, and actions as parents, teachers, community members, if we want our children to become lifelong learners who embrace challenge and opportunity. Lifelong reflective learning in this current age of chronic change is critical, for us and for our children.

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