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