I read a lot of books last year, but one of the very most significant to me is a book by Stanford Psychology Professor Carol Dweck: Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.  [Dweck also has a new on-line learning tool for middle school students called Brainology.]  I realize that the title sounds a bit too much like a magazine self-help article, and I realize that some of the profound wisdom Dweck dispenses might seem like just common sense and conventional wisdom.  And yet– I think it is still really significant, and really deep.   And it made a personally huge difference to me a year ago.

Last spring and summer, I was confronting a funny year in my life, school year 2008-09, the very first year of my life since I was three in which I was neither a full-time employee nor student.   I had to decide what to do with the year– and I spent several months in spring and summer trying my hardest to establish myself, one way or another, as an expert, as a consultant, as an author.  In Dweckian terms, I was acting out of a fixed mind-set, one major facet of which is the intense determination to “look smart: “the main thing I want to do when I school-work (or any other “work”) is to show how good I am at it.”

But then I read Dweck’s book, and had what proved to be a very important epiphany.   I could re-frame my year to be one dedicated not  to showing how accomplished I am, but instead to accomplishing more;  I could make it a year of growing, not showing.   I could re-train my brain to recognize that looking smart is not most important– learning is most important.   So instead of writing a book, I spent my year reading new books in topics I wanted to learn more about– and this is important, even books about topics I wasn’t sure I was very good at.  Instead of visiting schools telling them how they could be better, I spent my year visiting innovative and interesting schools,to learn anew what they could teach me about best practices.

Dweck’s book teaches us there are two mindsets, what she labels as the Fixed Mindset and the Growth Mindset.   In the fixed mindset, children and adults form a certain rigidity in their own internal understandings of their strengths– that they are smart in certain ways but not others, that their intelligence is fixed.   We can understand how damaging this might be to low performing students who form a mindset that they have a low intelligence, fixed that way, and there is nothing they can do.  But Dweck helps us understand how very damaging this is, counter-intuitively perhaps, to high performing students, who begin to believe they are innately smart because they were born that way, that they just plain are smart.   The result can be devastating, the way Dweck paints it– these children (and adults!) proceed smoothly until they encounter something genuinely challenging, at which point they are a baffled– how can this be so hard for me, when I am, (I KNOW I am!) smart?  Their self-understanding is jarred, and the emotional effect is to feel frustrated and to give up.   And/or, the student decides that if they, a smart person, cannot immediately do it, it simply cannot be done, and they abandon any further effort.   Dweck reports that Fixed mindset students report “To tell the truth, when I work harder, it makes me feel like I’m not very smart.”

About fixed mindsets, Scientific American Mind reports:

Many people assume that superior intelligence or ability is a key to success. But more than three decades of research shows that an overemphasis on intellect or talent—and the implication that such traits are innate and fixed—leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unmotivated to learn.

The Growth mindset, instead, is one where intelligence is understood and appreciated as a “malleable quality, a potential that can be developed.”   Growth mindset practitioners believe that they can learn whatever it is they need to learn if only they want to, if only they apply themselves.    A problem that is challenging is not reason to give up, but a reason to try harder.    They believe that it is more important to learn things in classes than to get the best grades, and that the harder you work at something, the better you will be.     After a failure, fixed mindset students feel helpless, and say things like “I would not try to take this subject ever again,” or “I would try to cheat on the next test.”    Resilient students instead say after a failure that “I would work harder in this class from now on.”  Again, Scientific American Mind:  “Teaching people to have a “growth mind-set,” which encourages a focus on effort rather than on intelligence or talent, produces high achievers in school and in life.”

A year ago, having had some disappointments and setbacks in my previous job, I sometimes felt like I should give up and do something else.  But that is because I was being haunted by too large a fixed mindset.  It lurks, the fixed mindset– we need to repeatedly fight it off, again and again.  But Dweck helped me fight it back, and after reading her  I really committed myself to learning things I had thought I couldn’t learn, and try harder and spend more time working to become better at this work I love so much.

And now, in my new role as Head of School here at St. Gregory, I am still working, hard, to try to maintain a growth mindset.  One of the reasons I think I try to blog everyday, as challenging as it is do so, time-wise, is that I think it is a way for me to try to learn new things every day, and process my learning by writing about them.   I see an important role of my job as School-Head to be Learner-in-Chief, to demonstrate as often as I can that I am trying my hardest to learn new things, and that I am willing to acknowledge how much I still have to learn.

It is essential we help our students to adopt a growth mindset, and parents and teachers can work together to do so.  One of the most important tools for doing so is in the way we use praise, and forgive me, I know you have probably heard this before and many times, but I think it is important enough to bear repeating.   Use effort praise rather than intelligence praise, regularly, consistently, repeatedly.   It is not complicated– but it can be hard to remember.    After success, we can use intelligence praise for our students by saying Wow, that’s a really good score. You must be smart at this.”  Or we can choose to use effort praise, and what a difference it makes: “Wow, that’s a really good score.  You must have tried really hard.”   Students for whom effort praise was used performed much better on solving challenging problems than did those students who received intelligence praise.  Scientific American:  “Parents and teachers can engender a growth mind-set in children by praising them for their effort or persistence (rather than for their intelligence), by telling success stories that emphasize hard work and love of learning, and by teaching them about the brain as a learning machine.”