Mindset in Making

A person who has a fixed mindset is predisposed to negativity. A person with a growth mindset is actively interested in improving.

The most important response from teachers and parents is a long-term intervention that will assist the student in developing a growth mindset. Studies show that the mindset of a student is a good predictor of their performance in life.

Maker education revolution

Conventional education is struggling to provide the learning environment necessary to help raise the future innovators, problem solvers, and entrepreneurs that advanced societies need. Maker Education offers a model for education in the 21st century.

“Don’t let schooling interfere with your education.”
— Mark Twain

Carol Dweck is a professor of psychology at Stanford University (1). Her main research interest is motivation, personality and development.

One of her important contributions to understanding personal development is in helping us understand intelligence. Where does intelligence come from? Is it something we are born with, or is it something that we learn? Dweck’s work is packaged in her Implicit Theories of Intelligence (2).

While there is no widely accepted definition for intelligence, a statement that describes the term broadly is this:

Intelligence (is) generally described as the ability to perceive information, and retain it as knowledge to be applied towards adaptive behaviours within an environment or context (3).

In Dweck’s Implicit Theories of Intelligence, people’s approach to their own intelligence lies on a continuum. At one end of this continuum is the approach by which intelligence is a fixed quantity. You are born with it, and it does not change. This is called the ‘fixed mindset’. According to Dweck:

“In a fixed mindset, students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that's that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb.” (4)

At the other end of the continuum is the approach that intelligence is something that a person can gain over time, through learning, hard work, training. This is called the ‘growth mindset’. According to Dweck:

“In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don't necessarily think everyone's the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.” (4)

People are not always aware of their natural predispositions towards one or the other end of the continuum, but their mindset can be tested and measured nevertheless. These mindsets manifest themselves in a variety of ways. Two important ones are the attitudes towards failure and learning of new skills.

Imagine that you are a young university student, and you just had a hard day. You received a bad mark in a mid-term exam, lost your train ticket and got fined. When you called your best friend to talk about your day, he told you that he was too busy at that moment. How would you respond? What would you do?

Putting this question to people that lean towards the fixed mindset end of the continuum reveals this fixed aspect of their personality. Negative thoughts and attitudes dominate.

- “I feel like a total reject.”
- “I am an idiot.”
- “I am a loser.”
- “I am worthless and dumb.”

A person with a fixed mindset comprehends what happened as a direct consequence of their worth and capability as an individual. They would react perhaps by deciding not to make an effort to become better since the capacity to do so is not within them. They would try never to get themselves in a position where someone else would have to assess their capability. They would stay in bed and do as little as possible.

Notice that nothing in the day of this person was terminal and catastrophic. A bad mark does not mean failure in the semester, and a lost train ticket can be easily replaced. Their best friend was most likely truly busy, perhaps with a pending assignment deadline, and would have called back as soon as he could. But the fixed mindset is primed for negativity.

If you give the same question to a person who leans towards the growth mindset, you will see a totally different response:

- “I need to try harder in class. I should have been better prepared for the test.”
- “I should have placed my train ticket in my wallet the night before the test. I was thinking about the test in the morning and forgot to take it out of the drawer.”
- “I will talk to the teacher to figure out how to improve my scores.”
- “My friend is too busy at the moment, I know he has a big exam coming up.”

It is a totally different way to deal with adversity. A person who is thinking according to the growth mindset is actively interested in improving. They don’t see their current performance as a direct consequence of their self-worth and capability, but as an indication and a datapoint of where they are, and how much work they need to expend in order to improve the performance to the next level.

Several experiments by Dweck and others show that the mindset of a student is a good predictor of their performance in life, and that, most important, mindset is malleable. It can be changed. In one such study, Dweck researched fixed and growth mindsets in a New York public secondary school. In total, 91 students completed the study. They were in seventh grade, and were relatively low achievers. At math, they were at the 35% percentile nationally. They came from a poor socio-economic background, with almost 80% of them being eligible for free lunch.

The students were divided into two groups. Forty-eight were placed in the experimental group, and 43 in the control group. The students were allocated to the two groups so that on average, there was no significant difference in math performance. For example, the term average math score for the experimental group was 2.38, and for the control group 2.41, on a 4.0 scale.

These math scores were used as a baseline of group performance. Using a questionnaire, the researchers measured the students’ initial motivational profiles. This included metrics for theories of intelligence, learning and performance goals, beliefs about effort, and attributions and strategies in response to failure at the beginning of the fall seventh-grade term. All students were told that they had the opportunity to participate in an eight-week workshop where they would learn about how the brain works. The aim of this workshop was to help them achieve better grades. Their participation was voluntary, and they would receive a certificate in the end.

Both groups received training about things such as the structure and function of the brain, anti-stereotyping lessons and study skills lessons. The experimental group, however, received training in incremental theory intervention, participated in discussions about learning and intelligence, and learned about brain plasticity and how learning makes people smarter. These interventions were specifically designed to reinforce and cultivate a growth mindset, and to convince the participants that it is possible to improve their performance through work and effort. The control group, however, received lessons on how to improve their memory instead of getting an incremental theory intervention.

At the end of the eight-week intervention program, the math score for the experimental group was significantly higher than the control group. More important, the trajectory of the math performance for the experimental group was upwards, while that of the control group was unchanged, downwards.

The trajectory of the math performance for the experimental group, from the time before Dweck began the study to the time that Dweck began the intervention was downwards, and a steeper angle than that of the control group. The experimental group’s performance was in fast decline.

Between the time when Dweck began the intervention and the time when the experiment ended, the experimental group had made a complete turnaround. The intervention managed to not only stop the downwards performance trend, but it reversed. Scores started to increase and continued to increase until the end of the experiment.

The testimonial from the school math teacher that participated in the study is as revealing as the numbers are:

“L., who never puts in any extra effort and doesn’t turn in homework on time, actually stayed up late working for hours to finish an assignment early so I could review it and give him a chance to revise it. He earned a B1 on the assignment (he had been getting Cs and lower).”

“M. was [performing] far below grade level. During the past several weeks, she has voluntarily asked for extra help from me during her lunch period in order to improve her test-taking performance. Her grades drastically improved from failing to an 84 on her recent exam.”

What can we conclude from the work of Carol Dweck and many others who have confirmed and extended her findings?

A student’s belief in their own ability to improve is detrimental to their current and future performance. Growth mindset is the an approach to personal development that says that intelligence is not fixed, but malleable. It is hard to imagine an effective learning environment in which students are not assisted to develop such mindset. Learning cannot take place unless the learner believes that she can learn, and becomes an active participant in this learning.

If a student believes that her intelligence is fixed, if she has a fixed mindset, the most important response from teachers and parents is an intervention that will help the student to develop a growth mindset, over time. There is no point doing anything else. The fixed mindset belief will simply guide the student to developing strategies to avoid work that she sees as pointless, and avoid situations in which grading and performance evaluation is likely. In general, a severely fixed-mindset student will do everything possible to make sure that things don’t get any worse (as they see it), rather than striving to improve on the skills they lack.


Interesting readings

Maker Education Revolution

Learning in a high-tech society.

Available in PDF, Mobi, ePub and paperback formats.

Using Maker Education as a model for education in the 21st century, Dr Peter Dalmaris explains how teachers, parents, and learners can apply the educational methods of inventors and innovators for the benefit of their students and children.

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