The Benefits of Complex Mindsets

hesse-steppenwolfIn a 2015 commentary in Education Week, Carol Dweck acknowledges that she and her colleagues may have oversimplified “growth mindset” and ignored the mixtures of mindset in all of  us:

My colleagues and I are taking a growth-mindset stance toward our message to educators. Maybe we originally put too much emphasis on sheer effort. Maybe we made the development of a growth mindset sound too easy. Maybe we talked too much about people having one mindset or the other, rather than portraying people as mixtures. We are on a growth-mindset journey, too.

I commend her for this acknowledgment and would take it a step further. I suggest that the concept of “growth mindset” is inherently limiting: that while we benefit from the awareness that we can improve, we actually employ, in all our work, a mixture of fixity and growth. Growth mindset does not exist as a discrete phenomenon, nor would we be better off if it did.

Before explaining this, let me clarify that I am not dismissing the importance of openness to improvement in oneself and others. When we see humans as fixed, we are likelier to demean or overpraise them. So-and-so is “so amazing” or utterly beyond hope. I know what it’s like to have someone latch onto something I said in a difficult moment, and remind me of it again and again over the years, as though that utterance encapsulated me. I also know what it means to expect myself to perform brilliantly–not just well, but brilliantly–and to disparage myself when I do not.

But as soon as I look beyond those extreme examples, I see a more complex picture. In particular, I see how a degree of “fixity,” mixed with “growth” and other attitudes, could help a person accomplish good things. Moreover, there is some fixity inherent in any growth.

First, from elementary school onward, we decide where to direct our efforts. Yes, we all have to do our schoolwork, but beyond that, when faced with many possibilities, which ones do we select? Some–not all–of our decisions will take our abilities into account. If I must choose between gymnastics and a musical instrument, and if I love both but am much better at one, I will probably choose it.

Now, I might choose to continue pursuing both, or to fight my limitations and pursue the less “natural” course–but even there, I will take my abilities into account. No matter what the ultimate choice, it involves a degree of “fixed mindset”: the acknowledgment that we have more ease with certain pursuits than with others. (This does not mean that, in choosing them, we avoid challenge; to the contrary, we may open ourselves to higher levels of challenge.)

Second, even within a chosen field we employ “fixed mindset” when choosing direction. Suppose I am working on a poem, and it is not coming out right. I could try and try to improve it, or I could scrap it and start a new one. Both choices have a place. Sometimes a poem has some promising elements but needs work; sometimes it is flawed from the start. The ability to say “this is going nowhere”  actually allows me to try something else. Something similar could be said for a scientific theory or pedagogical approach. Giving up is not always wrong; it can allow for an opening.

Third, as I have mentioned before, a “fixed mindset” may come from a sharp vision of excellence. When we see ourselves falling short of it, we may question our work and withdraw for a while. Within measure, this can actually do good. I see where I am, and I see where I want to be; the gulf tempts me to give up. I think of giving up, wrestle a bit with the temptation, go to sleep, wake up, and continue onward. Everything is informed by the vision and the questioning. If I had not thought of giving up, if I had not struggled a little with the temptation, my continuation would have less meaning.

My point here is not to glorify “fixed mindset” (God forbid) but to suggest that we work with a mixture of growth and fixity and other things. The challenge is to find the right mixture. I remember a novel I loved as a teenager:  Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf. Here  the saxophonist Pablo is rearranging the pieces of Harry Haller’s (the protagonist and narrator’s) personality:

With the sure and silent touch of his clever fingers he took hold of my pieces, all the old men and young men and children and women, cheerful and sad, strong and weak, nimble and clumsy, and swiftly arranged them on his board for a game. At once they formed themselves into groups and families, games and battles, friendships and enmities, making a small world. For a while he let this lively and yet orderly world go through its evolutions before my enraptured eyes in play and strife, making treaties and fighting battles, wooing, marrying, and multiplying. It was indeed a crowded stage, a moving breathless drama.

Then he swiftly sweeps the pieces into a heap and starts over with a new formation.

Although somewhat quaint, the image of Pablo and the pieces evokes a wisdom that I miss: the wisdom that we are made of many elements, that we carry vast combinations, and that, instead of pushing ourselves into one “mindset” or another, we can make the most of the mixture.

Note: Please see my two previous posts on this topic: “The Fixed Mindset of ‘Growth Mindset’” and “Are Mindsets Really Packageable?

District Purchases New Goal Package

vennUpsidasi, MN–While schools around the country scramble to align themselves with the new Common Core State Standards, a district in Minnesota has taken a different tack. Because growth is what matters, it has purchased a new product called Goal-a-Matic, which gathers data through surveys and sensors, generates personalized goals, and then calculates progress toward them. What’s more, it guarantees growth for all.

“It’s amazing,” said Superintendent Tracy Groter. “I just sit down with a sensor bracelet, fill out a form, and boom! I’ve got a goal that matches me. Then a few months later, I sit down again, and boom! I see growth. Not any old growth, mind you, but academic growth.”

What was her personalized goal? “I will learn the spelling of two of the three following words: accommodations, accountability, and principal.”

Isn’t that goal a bit too close at hand? “It doesn’t matter; it’s a goal,” she replied. “Goals are goals. Growth is growth. Show the growth, and you’re good to go.”

The software comes with electronic Goal-Mentors, cellphone-size digital devices that remind users of the goal every hour. “It’s great to have that kind of pressure,” she explained. “If you know you’re being held accountable, you’re less likely to slip up.”

Teachers’ goals range from “I will write three standards on chart paper five times a week” to “I will praise the new teacher evaluation system in two out of the next three faculty meetings.” (While not strictly academic, these goals still serve academic purposes, according to Groter.)

For students, the goals are friendly and flexible: for instance, “I will turn and talk to my neighbor in 80 percent of my classes”; “I will draw a Venn diagram of something”; or “I will look at the title of a book and predict what it will be about.”

“I find these goals incredibly annoying,” said a fifth-grader. “I want to learn algebra, and instead I have to spend all day promising to learn inane strategies that I don’t even need and then showing that I’ve learned them.”

“This kid is just going to have to get used to it,” said Groter, “because the workplace does this kind of thing too. In fact, we’re borrowing a lot from what we hear is out there.”

Setting and meeting goals is only part of the process. Once they have attained their goals, students, teachers, and administrators must advertise their attainments. “When you’ve got 100 people showing growth, there’s got to be some other way of standing out,” said Groter. “Basically you’ve got to promote yourself. You do it by buying airtime.”

When students meet goals, they earn advertisement points. Once they accumulate five points, they may show a video ad of their attainments at the start of class. The teacher must accommodate these needs. At the end of the week, students vote on the most popular ads. The students with the winning ads take part in speed-networking events; the one that makes the best impression is named Student of the Week. At the end of the year, the student with the most Student of the Week awards receives the Success Prize, the school’s highest honor.

“I made my ads over the summer,” said Vince Chitry, a high school junior. “Then I started talking them up on Facebook. I know I’ve got the votes. Question is, what if someone offers to buy my votes? I could really use the cash. I could even use some of it toward special effects for my next video. I’ll have to think about that one.”

Vera Denken, a history teacher, asked what students would learn from all of this. She was swiftly informed that she would have to make an ad (her second) in which she displayed at least five approved “artifacts” of goal attainment.

“She had better be wearing new shoes this time,” commented Groter. “You can’t succeed in the real world if you wear the same shoes in two ads.”