A Dynamic Mind; Not a Growth Mindset

by Rick on November 29, 2016

The antidote for a “fixed mindset” is not a “growth mindset,” but a mind on a mission.

One morning ten years ago a kindergarten teacher named John walked into his class wearing a pink shirt. There had been an outbreak of students saying a certain toy or activity was “just for boys” or “just for girls.” He had decided it was time for some lessons on gender equity. When the students entered class, one of the boys asked with hesitation, “Is that a… pink shirt?” “Yes. Why?” John responded. “Really?” the boy started to cringe his face and smirk. “Yes, pink,” said John.

Just before giggling could ensue, a classmate interjected, “Only a real man can wear pink.” This, of course, is exactly what John was going for in order to start a day of discussions about biases, stereotypes and justice. But John got even more than he’d hoped for. The enlightenment continued throughout the week and even throughout the year as teachable moments kept popping up.

LIBERATING A COMMUNITY FROM FIXED MINDSETS

In fact, John’s achievement of opening five-year-olds minds about “gender identity” had impact beyond his classroom. “Real men wear pink” was a very sticky message. It helped to coalesce the school’s progress toward being “a safe place to be yourself.” It also fed the faculty’s efforts to liberate the school community from fixed mindsets altogether: “I’m dumb in math,” “I’m really smart,” “She has a social anxiety disorder,” “He has ADHD,” “She’s shy.”

For a school to maximize academic achievement, it has to be a place where everyone loves to go to work every day. For us to love to go to work every day, we need a social environment where it is not only safe to be ourselves, but also a place for us to transcend the generalizations we make about ourselves and to redefine ourselves day after day—a safe place to be new. Fixed mindsets of all kinds need to dissolve in a sea of open, creative minds focused on mission rather than mind.

DSC00158“I keep trying to engender a growth mindset in my children, and it’s not working.”

Carol Dweck’s breakthrough work on Mindset (Random House, 2006) shows that people perform smarter if they are not impressed with how smart or dumb they are. She called that a “growth mindset.” However, in the ten years since her popularization of the notion of Mindset, “growth mindset” has run into criticism that could perhaps be exemplified by: “I keep trying to engender a growth mindset in my children, and it’s not working.”

The problem stems from making “growth mindset” a category, as in: there are two kinds of minds; a growth mindset and a fixed mindset. The freedom from labeling yourself smart or dumb is not a mindset at all, but rather the freedom from mindsets altogether, the mental habit of transcending the generalizations we keep making. A better name might be a “dynamic mind:” a mind that keeps changing perspective.

A young brain is superbly designed to take in data and make sense of it. Young brains are also particularly good at dumping old frames of mind when new data comes in to disconfirm their hypothesis. Five-year-olds come to kindergarten having spent 43,000 hours gathering data, forming hypotheses, testing the hypotheses and coming up with new generalizations which they then retest again and again.

KIDS HAVE THEMSELVES LABELED BY FOURTH GRADE.

What goes on in class must continue this process if school is to be educational. Tragically, in school the game often shifts from building the brain to being right. Asking questions puts you at risk for the embarrassment of being wrong.The result is the tendency for minds to get fixed on what’s “true” according to the teacher, or the textbook, or the values of the culture about minds or mathematics, self-concept or science, faces or physics.

Under normal school conditions there is very little reward for changing your mind about these things. In most schools all kids have themselves labeled by fourth grade, and they have categorized everyone and everything else, too. The key question is, can they change those categories? Or do their categories simply become self-fulfilling and self-frustrating theories? The challenge for educators is to animate our communities with a spirit of inquiry.

CATEGORIES ARE KILLING US

Categories are killing us in classrooms, on college campuses and around the world. There are three kinds of students: gifted, normal, disabled. There are five races: Black, Latino, Asian, Native American and White, …oh and Pacific Islander. Howard Gardner liberated our thinking when he came up with seven intelligences, then he “discovered” an eighth; some say there are nine. It is high time we took this concept further. There is as much diversity within each of these “types” as there is between them.

About 6500 languages are spoken in the world today; how many kinds of minds are there? 7.4 billion, each working on self-actualization. Self-actualization occurs through action, action which redefines a self to a situation, action which frees us from old mindsets and creates new ones.

Parents and schools: don’t “engender” a growth mindset in children. Instead: create the conditions — like wear a pink shirt or something — in which children grow the dynamic mind they came to school with in the first place.

Alison Gopnik might say the problem stems from not entrusting a self with her own self-actualization.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

larryalobo December 1, 2016 at 5:25 pm

Perhaps its not just the label we put on the process (growth mindset) and change it to something else (dynamic mindset) but the beliefs of those in charge (teachers) and whether or not they have a growth mindset to begin with to teach or encourage and model it and have the skills to pull it off. If children are as flexible we think they are, then a school wide and consistent mindset of growth should be able to affect them. My guess is it is a haphazard patch of inconsistencies in schools that is also a problem – some teachers have a growth mindset, others don’t, some try to incorporate it into their classes, others don’t, some are good at it, others are not, some can handle a change in classroom culture, others can’t. You can call it dynamic mindset but that in my mind is just a relabeling of what we are trying to incorporate.

Steven C. Haas December 2, 2016 at 11:15 am

Having worked with teachers in their classrooms in many different school districts across the U.S. over the last decade, I have become an ardent believer that when teaching/learning situations are approached with an open mind, there is no problem with the “growth mindset” as you assert. It is not, and was never intended to be, another “category,” but a concept that would inform the teaching/learning process. Perhaps if you would insert the phrase “growing mind” wherever you find “growth mindset,” that would solve your problem.

Marty Dutcher December 2, 2016 at 7:59 pm

Rick, I like what you are driving at, and agree that a “growth mindset” is another mindset that, when distinguished and then promoted, becomes another “right” thing to do (is that what you said?). And schools don’t live in a vacuum, as you know. And as much as I love and respect parents and teachers, that we have all been schooled and all have the process that “neurons that fire together, wire together,” we all end up with automatic defensive responses to things that are radically new. I am most interested in environments (mostly home environments) in which those 43,000 hours of data collection and experimentation occur. I first heard Alison Gopnik speaking to EC educators almost begging them to reconsider bringing the teaching pedogy from elementary more into preschool, and her book, The Scientist in the Crib is so important. But her newest, The Carpenter and the Gardener, is a bold gem and I just love her for having the courage to write it. And I know you’d love it too!

Rick December 3, 2016 at 7:06 am

Thank you Larry for pointing out that “Dynamic Mindset” has the danger of being just another mindset. Mind on a Mission. Is that better?
and Thank you, Marty. Yes, what the world needs is minds that can recreate themselves continually. and Yes, the Gopnik YouTube video is her explication of the Carpenter and the Gardner. Important stuff.

Rick December 3, 2016 at 7:24 am

Steven, I completely agree that approaching learning with an open mind is exactly what we are going for. I have always been (and still am) a disciple of Carol Dweck. As someone who has also been in many schools all over the country, you would have to agree that this is not the most common phenomenon. The culture of most schools (and homes) is plagued by adult efforts to “engender” “instill” and otherwise engineer their child’s success. If you are not as frustrated as I am by fixed mindsets then you have been visiting a special set of schools.
I agree that “growing mind” might help the problem, but I am suggesting forgetting about the mind “we are trying to create” altogether, focusing on the mission that a person is on, collaborating with that person to understand and pursue that mission without wondering what “kind” of mind we are creating.

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