Monday, August 15, 2011

Non-fiction Book Review: Mindset

One of the books I read this summer for work-related reasons was Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D.

I had heard a great deal about this book, and had attended a talk by Dr. Dweck, but this was the first time I read the book in its entirety.

It is about two very different ways of thinking: the growth mindset, and the fixed mindset. People with the growth mindset think that intelligent people work hard to learn: the obstacles are fun challenges and the journey has made the brain smarter. People with the fixed mindset think about intelligence as something you either have or don't have, and the journey through school is a series of tests designed to figure out who the smart ones are.

Chapters are primarily divided by topic, one exploring how the two mindsets affect education, while another explores how they affect sports, another business, and another relationships. In each chapter, Dweck gives examples of people with the two mindsets (celebrities, descriptions of patients, etc), explores how they handle successes and setbacks, and gives tips for "growing your mindset."

For that's the overarching message of the book. The growth mindset is shown to be the "right" mindset. It allows people to try new things without fear of failure or the expectation that they have to get it right immediately, appreciate effort and growth in others, and enjoy a higher degree of success in their chosen pursuits as a by-product of doing it for the enjoyment of the learning process rather than as a need to prove themselves. People with the growth mindset are better able to handle bouts of depression and have more successful personal relationships.

A person can, of course, be a mixture of mindsets. Dweck tells us early in the book that she will only discuss the two extremes of the spectrum for purposes of clarity. A person can also be growth-mindset in some areas (for example, in athletics) and fixed-mindset in others (for example, in the arts). For this reason, Dweck discusses examples in all areas to show that effective people in every area have been growth-mindset. There are wonderful sections highlighting business leaders, basketball coaches, violin teachers, and of course, classroom teachers and parents.

For me, it has been truly inspirational. As a teacher, I am growth-mindset.* I view learning as a life-long pursuit, one with no "winners" and "losers," just fellow travelers on this journey. I see my role as a facilitator, teaching my students how to learn and using assessments as tools to figure out what they can work on next. What I didn't realize was how my fixed-mindset students were seeing my assignments and assessments: as judgements of themselves as people. If they do poorly on one test, they might use that to determine "I am not good at science" and keep that self-label with them always. Being aware of this makes it much easier for me to work against it - deliberately teaching them how to interpret the tasks and test scores they receive from me.

As you can imagine, it is vital that a parent uses only growth-mindset language with their children, and it is so easy to do otherwise. We can do a lot of damage with the well-meaning but wrong kind of praise ("You're so smart! You figured that out so fast!" "You are so good at baseball! You learned to catch the ball without even trying!"). We need to praise their efforts, not their innate abilities. The wrong kind of praise teaches them that we value things that come naturally, and if they have to work hard to master something, it means they are not smart, or not good at it. Dweck recommends "You finished that so fast; you must need something more challenging to grow your brain" and "I like how you have been working so hard at learning to catch; you have been getting better all the time!"

As a parent, even one with a growth mindset, I find it easy to fall into the "you're so _____" trap! Reading this book has been a great reminder. I find I'm seeing fixed- vs. growth- mindset everywhere - while reading other books and movies, I'm thinking to myself "he is really growth-mindset." We'll see how long this effect lasts!

Mindset is a quick and easy read, presenting the psychological research findings in a conversational way. I recommend it - and have recommended it - to everyone. It really does apply in every arena, not just teaching and parenting but the workplace, dieting, attacking your to-do list, marriages, friendships, etc.

*Strangely, I tend to be fixed-mindset about myself, but no one else. I expect that everything I try should come easily and tend to give up too quickly. I vow to speak to myself with the same growth-oriented language that I use with my students and my children!

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