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A Work In Progress (Carol Dweck)

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Blame it on my physics background. When I first arranged to sit down with world- renowned psychologist Carol Dweck, I was pretty skeptical of the prospect of any genuine insights coming out of the experience. After all, I generally make a habit of avoiding the self-help section of a bookstore with a disdainful smirk, and Carol’s 2006 bestselling work, Mindset: How You Can Fulfill Your Potential seemed to me as good a poster boy of the pop psychology genre as one might find. Still, I told myself, as the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, she was a highly respected academic with a lifetime’s worth of accomplishment. Of course, I couldn’t help immediately reflexively adding, that was in psychology. Which is all to say that, awards, publications and an endowed chair at Stanford notwithstanding, expectations were still emphatically low.

But then I dug into Mindset and began to feel decidedly uncomfortable. Not only because it was quickly apparent that there was definitely something to Carol’s argument, but, more worrying still, I couldn’t help recognizing myself in some of her illuminating and often not terribly flattering examples.

The essential thesis of Mindset is that there are two fundamental approaches to life and learning that we adopt: a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. Those in the fixed mindset believe that intelligence and ability is both innate and limited, while those in the growth mindset are convinced that things are much more fluid and open.

At first glance, this seems to be precisely the sort of touchy-feely, quasi-tautological vagueness that leaves me decidedly underwhelmed: success depends on working hard and having a good attitude.

But it turns out to be much deeper than that. If you believe that your capabilities are somehow pre-ordained, you will often deliberately shirk challenges for fear of failing to live up to your allocated spot on the social hierarchy. After all, if you’re already regarded as “the top math student in your class”, say, what do you have to gain by tackling a difficult problem that one of your classmates might crack first? Nothing at all. In a fixed-mindset world, the only direction you have to go is down.

For those in a growth-mindset, however, things are radically different, springing from a clear understanding that the act of grappling with a tough problem is a vital ingredient for further development.

“Those in a growth mindset believe their basic abilities can be developed through hard work, good strategies, and help and mentoring from others. They don’t think everyone’s the same, or that anyone can be Einstein, but they understand that people don’t become the people that they become without effort – just as Einstein didn’t become Einstein until he worked at it. So people with a growth mindset are more likely to take on hard challenges and stick to them, because that’s how you learn and grow.”

One particularly intriguing implication of Carol’s research focused on the role of praise in childhood development as she began to appreciate that some types of praise could actually be counter-productive.

“I had been doing the mindset work and we were hearing all these self-esteem gurus tell parents, ‘Praise your children lavishly and frequently. Tell them how smart they are. Tell them how talented they are.’

“And my students and I thought, Well, wait a minute, those kids with a fixed mindset, those vulnerable kids, are obsessed with how smart they are and always measuring it. Wouldn’t praising intelligence communicate to kids that, first of all, I can look inside you and see this fixed thing; and, secondly, that’s what I care about, that’s what’s important to me; and therefore, thirdly, you better be smart all the time. It seemed to us that praising intelligence could communicate a fixed mindset with all of its vulnerabilities.”

And so it proved to be. Carol and her colleagues conducted a number of rigorous experiments with teachers and students to distinguish the effects of praising intelligence (telling students “how smart they were”) and so-called “process praise” (praising them for the effort they made in engaging with the problem).

“We saw, over and over and over again, that the kids praised for intelligence developed, in that situation, more of a fixed mindset. They didn’t want a hard task. When we gave them a hard task, they lost their confidence, their performance plummeted, and they lied about it later. Because, in that mindset, where intelligence is revered as the be all and end all, they couldn’t come to terms with doing poorly, even on something that was new, unfamiliar, and difficult.

“But when we praised the process, the effort, or the strategy, they adopted more of a growth mindset about those skills. Most of them, and in some cases over 90% of the kids in a given study, wanted the hard task that they could learn from even if they made mistakes. When we later gave them a hard task, they stayed confident and resilient and their performance kept improving and improving.”

Despite its importance for learning and personal development, Carol still required a bit of convincing to turn her academic work into a popular book, which she only did after repeated entreaties by friends and students. And once engaged, she took the unusually candid step of admitting that notwithstanding all her academic success, she, too, was once beset with a fixed mindset.

Meanwhile, scientifically-speaking, the story gets increasingly interesting, with a plethora of avenues to explore at the cross-over frontier of neuroscience and traditional psychology. Carol likes to talk about how a growth mindset can “grow your brain,” which I had naturally first concluded was simply an eye-catching metaphor. But it turns out that it could well be a much more literal assessment of what is actually going on.

“I’m really excited about the explosion of research speaking to the plasticity of the brain. For example, there was a recent study looking at teenagers, following them across four years, which showed that there were large changes in IQ for some of the kids that were paralleled by changes in the density of neurons, nerve-endings, in the relevant parts of the brain.

“The idea is that, if you use it, you’ll grow it: your connections will be strengthened and the density will be increased. It is very exciting. It puts kids in charge of their brains and it tells them that what they are doing now makes a difference for them. It’s not saying everyone is the same, or anyone can be anyone or anything, but it’s saying that you can really grow your brain through hard work, good instruction, and so forth. I’m also very excited by work in cognitive science that is identifying the components of intelligence, of “executive function,” and figuring out how to teach it.

“Intelligence has always been this mysterious thing that some people seem to have and some don’t, but now there’s a growing recognition that it’s a set of skills, many of which can be taught or enhanced, which is really exciting.”

All told, then, a far cry from what I had imagined “pop psychology” might be. But, of course, I’m much more broadminded now.

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For a complete list of Ideas Roadshow videos with Carol Dweck, click here. The IR eBook Mindsets containing the unabridged Ideas Roadshow conversation with Carol and a range of additional resources will be available on Amazon later this week, while the podcast of our one-hour video with Carol is now freely available on iTunes.

University staff and students may already have full access to all Ideas Roadshow resources on our Academic Portal through an institutional subscription (subscribers include Harvard, Princeton, Imperial College, University of Michigan, and many more), while select high school teachers and members of the general public have access to our School and Public Library Portals.  For more information please contact irena@ideasroadshow.com.

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