Mindset for the Midterm

It is that time of year when students are returning home from college and boarding schools with their midterm reports from the opening of school. As a parent I am tempted to fall back into old patterns and make comments about my own children's performances in their classes and sporting events. How quickly I forget how much we "teach" our students as parents and teachers at these critical moments of reflection and evaluation. How many times have we said, "great job in this class, but why is that other grade so low?"

Of all the books I have read over the last twenty five years in education, Carol Dweck's book Mindset has probably been the most meaningful in my work as an educator, coach and parent. Dweck's work covers everything from the danger of offering praise, to the damage we can cause by referring to natural ability, to the power of focusing on effort, to the building of a growth mindset in our children. Dweck offers that there are two identifiable mindsets, one called the fixed mindset that posits that intelligence and ability are essential fixed; and the growth mindset that assumes intelligence and ability are mutable. If you believe that intelligence is something that can't be changed you have a fixed mindset. If you believe that your own intelligence can be substantially changed you have a growth mindset. Dweck obviously argues that we should develop a growth mindset in our students. A growth mindset creates resilient and happy young people who embrace challenge, ask for help and seek knowledge. But how do we do help young people develop this mindset?

First, we do no harm. Don't walk into a classroom and tell your class that they are really smart and that the lab or test you are about to give them should be a piece of cake. You are creating an expectation where they will feel they will have to prove their intelligence to you. Dweck even refers to experiments that show that students spoken to in this way avoid risk and seek easier challenges. They are crushed by the weight of expectation and a desire to show that they are naturally intelligent or physically gifted. They are not inspired to gain more knowledge because they believe their intelligence came to them naturally and not through disciplined effort.

Illustration by Quinn Thomson '17.

Illustration by Quinn Thomson '17.

To develop a growth mindset in our students Dweck suggests that first and foremost we should model the mindset we want to see in them. For instance I should not say I am bad at chemistry. Instead I might say that I really struggle with chemistry, but I find it interesting and think I just need to spend more time studying it. We should avoid praising outcomes and performance and praise the effort that went into creating the positive outcome. What strategies, efforts and choices created a successful process? We want to show them through our words and actions that we see them as developing persons and that we are interested in their development. College and high school students appear more stressed out today than at any other point in our history. Dweck shows us how we can help our young people embrace challenge, cope with stress, and take risks by developing a growth mindset that will serve them throughout their lives.  Let's turn the midterm report into an opportunity to model and nurture a growth mindset in our students.

Illustration by Quinn Thomson '17.

Illustration by Quinn Thomson '17.

Dweck, Carol. Mindset, the New Psychology of Success. New York, Ballantine Books, 2006. Print.