Cory Roush

Dissonance and tension plus reflection and resolution equal intellectual growth

Promoting a Growth Mindset Should Be Priority One

I've written about my own personal growth mindset before, the belief that most human qualities - intelligence, some elements of personality, work ethic, self-concept, etc. - can be improved (or, on a less positive note, degrade). It's my opinion that this is the only way that one can hope to live a happy, productive life.

An article in Wired magazine backs me up on this and then takes the idea one step further, to a point where it becomes apparent that the growth mindset is essential for teachers to nurture in their students.

Jonah Lehrer explains:

The question at the heart of the paper is simple: Why are some people so much more effective at learning from their mistakes? After all, everybody screws up. The important part is what happens next. Do we ignore the mistake, brushing it aside for the sake of our self-confidence? Or do we investigate the error, seeking to learn from the snafu?

Students in a study completed by Carol Dweck were praised for their work on a simple task, but in two different ways. One group was praised for their intelligence - "You must be very smart at this!" - while the other was praised for their efforts - "You must have worked hard on this!" The students were then given a chance to try a harder task, one that they were told would be more difficult but would benefit them if completed. The results were unsurprising to me:

But it soon became clear that the type of compliment given to the fifth graders dramatically affected their choice of tests. When kids were praised for their effort, nearly 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. However, when kids were praised for their intelligence, most of them went for the easier test. What explains this difference? According to Dweck, praising kids for intelligence encourages them to “look” smart, which means that they shouldn’t risk making a mistake.

And there we begin another argument for constructive guidance and discipline in the classroom. The surest way to create a self-fulfilling prophecy for the unmotivated or struggling students in your classroom is to imply that they are doomed to continue repeating their failures. By explaining that their mistake isn't a sign of weakness but instead a signal that more work should be done to improve, you can potentially avoid a lifelong cycle of helplessness.

The problem with praising kids for their innate intelligence — the “smart” compliment — is that it misrepresents the psychological reality of education. It encourages kids to avoid the most useful kind of learning activities, which is when we learn from our mistakes.

I'm at the end of my undergraduate education and I can name several examples of colleagues who become frozen with fear when faced with a difficult challenge. Unfortunately, these are men and women who will soon be entering into a classroom themselves and if they don't begin to recognize the necessity of a growth mindset, another generation of students will become fixed upon their failures as well.

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