Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Is success about learning or proving you are smart?

Carol Dweck offers some insight in her book Mindset:

Benjamin Barber, an eminent sociologist once said, I don't divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures... I divide the world in to the learners and nonlearners."
What on earth would make someone a nonlearner? Everyone is born with an intense drive to learn. Infants stretch their skills daily. Not just ordinary skills, but the most difficult tasks of a lifetime, like learning to walk and talk. They never decide its to hard or not worth the effort. Babies don't worry about making mistakes or humiliating themselves. They walk, they fall, they get up. They just barge forward.
What could put an end to this exuberant learning? The fixed mindset. As soon as children become able to evaluate themselves, some of them become afraid of challenges. They become afraid of not being smart. I have studied thousands of people from preschoolers on, and it's breathtaking how many reject an opportunity to learn.
We offered four-year-olds a choice: They could redo an easy jigsaw puzzle or they could try a harder one. Even at this tender age, children with the fixed mindset - the ones who believed in fixed traits - stuck with the safe one. Kids who are born smart "don't do mistakes," they told us. 
Children with the growth mindset - the ones who believed you could get smarter - thought it was a strange choice Why are you asking me this, lady? Why would anyone want to keep doing the same puzzle over and over? They chose one hard one after another. "I'm dying to figure them out!" exclaimed one little girl.
So children with the fixed mindset want to make sure they succeed. Smart people should always succeed. But for children with the growth mindset, success is about stretching themselves. It's about becoming smarter.
One seventh-grade girl summed it up. "I think intelligence is something you have to work for... it isn't just given to you... Most kids, if they're not sure of an answer, will not raise their hands to answer the question. But what I usually do is raise my hand, because if I'm wrong, then my mistake will be corrected. Or I will raise my hand and say, "How would this be solved?" or "I don't get this. Can you help me?" Just by doing that I'm increasing my intelligence."
When assessment becomes an exercise in encouraging kids to show off how good or smart they are, kids come to see mistakes and failures as things that should never happen.

This is at odds with what we know about truly successful people.

We know that a healthy and resilient attitude towards mistakes and failures is a mandatory characteristic for anyone who wishes to get really good at anything. But when teachers become more of a judge-in-waiting than a safe and caring ally, then kids can't help but confuse being right with learning.

I won't claim to prescribe the recipe for nurturing a growth mindset in children, but I have a feeling teachers who understand that assessment and measurement are not the same thing have considerable more success than those who confuse the two.


  1. Hi Joe. I just finished this book last night and it certainly made me reflect on some of the things we say to kids that, although meant to boost and encourage, could actually have the opposite effect. I'll be thinking more carefully about how I word praise to my students in future. I was interested in the Brainology program she writes about. Have you heard of it?

  2. I am not familiar with that program, but like most of her book, it fascinates me to think of how our best intentions might be the very thing that sabotages our ultimate, long term goals for our children.

  3. Very cogent explanation. My spouse & I have this conversation almost daily: SHE: Let's do such & such. HE: Yes, but we might fail. SHE: Yes. Let's try it anyway.


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