Isn't it funny the way a certain concept or behavior can seem to suddenly be all around you, all the time, after its first compelling appearance on your awareness radar? Nutella was like this for me. I lived a full 30 years of my life, blissfully unaware of its existence. But once I was introduced to its chocolate-hazelnut perfection, it was literally everywhere I looked. A jar of Nutella doesn't stand a chance of lasting more than 24 hours in my house. To this day, I have to avoid that aisle in the grocery store.
I often also experience this feeling in the less gluttonous spheres of my life, like a sudden thematic tidal wave washing over my entire conscious reality. This phenomenon was ignited most recently for me as a result of a simple course development project and the required research around mistake-driven learning theory. Though not a new concept at all, I had not quite considered it from that particular perspective or been required to break it down into the same discrete, functional pieces. That is one of the things I love most about my job—the fact that I have to digest and understand new and ever-changing knowledge for each new project or partnership.
I wrapped that project feeling grateful for the broader awareness I had gained and also happy for some new blog material. But now all this Growth Mindset chatter simply won't go away. What started as a narrowly-focused interest in learning strategies that most effectively drive knowledge into long-term memory has now expanded in both scope and fascination. And though I know we all create our own echo chambers from the information sources we seek out and self-select (from Twitter feeds to news digests), I am completely enthralled by the bigger conversation I am hearing. Not just because of its relevance for the work that I do, but because of its real-life, here-and-now implications—from how I engage with young learners in my own family to the moral imperative I believe we have to design impactful education that is accessible to all people.
The "chatter" in this broader discourse that has held my most rapt attention comes from Carol S. Dweck, a professor at Stanford University whose research centers around motivation and success. In her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, she draws a stunning comparison between individuals possessing a fixed mindset and those with more of a growth mindset approach to life. Essentially, people with a fixed mindset avoid challenges and, as a result, often remain static in their success trajectory compared to their growth mindset counterparts. Individuals who maintain a growth mindset perspective, however, not only take challenges head-on, but also readily learn from mistakes they make along the way and course correct, based on the lessons they learn throughout the process. It is what some might call grit or tenacity. But the difference between the fixed and growth mindset camps is not innate. One of the key distinctions between these two populations is simply in how they define effort, difficulty, and challenge.
WHAT SORT OF KIDS ARE WE RAISING?
This pivotal differentiator is what has really fanned the fire for me this week. Because where do our definitions of the world around us come from? From our families, our teachers, our communities, our social media echo chambers. And we are not born with preconceived notions about such nuanced behavioral patterns. These are learned behaviors that we absorb from our environments like a sponge. Which begs the question:
Are we raising our children in a way that fosters a growth mindset?
I am sure we would all like to think that we are, in fact, raising tenacious little sponges who view challenges and potential failures as just-in-time growth opportunities. But I admit that I often miss the mark when it comes to the language I choose to encourage, challenge, or motivate kids in their learning process. How many of us have praised our kids' intelligence (Great job on that test! Shows just how smart you are!) rather than their effort (You worked really hard on that project. We are so proud of the way you stuck it out, even when you felt like quitting!)? I know I have.
If the distinction between the two forms of praise is at all unclear, the video below (a segment from Dweck's TED Talk on mindset and learning) will paint a vivid picture of exactly how important our words can be.
Dweck's own words and her research are powerful. Think about the accelerated rate of improvement that her research subjects displayed as a result of a growth mindset approach to learning. And her closing call to action is something I cannot shake. I agree that we have a responsibility to free our children from the "tyranny of now" so that they can develop curious minds and malleable, eager-to-improve growth mindsets. And that is a really, really hard thing to do because we first have to take a long look at ourselves. Do we model the behavior we are trying to teach our kids or do we run in the other direction whenever we see the potential for failure or embarrassment? But if we are willing to take a long, hard look in the mirror and then strive to transform "the meaning of effort and difficulty" for our children, then we may actually see the seeds of true lifelong learning begin to take root.
Never stop learning.