Instead of “Growth Mindset,” Good Tinkering

I have written numerous posts–and a chapter of a book–on problems with the concept of “growth mindset” and the phrase itself.* But I keep tinkering with the idea, because there seems to be something more to say. Until now, my objections have come down to this: Growth mindset proponents either say or imply that everyone should strive for more growth mindset, no matter how much they already have. Yet it is possible, even likely, that people benefit from a mixture of mindsets, from a sense of possibility and limitation. Also, the phrase sounds overly grandiose, like a polka-dotted umbrella stretching over the world; it claims to encompass more than it does.

I still hold to the above. But I realized something else while listening to Bill Hader’s Q&A with students and program host Tova Laiter at the New York Film Academy’s Los Angeles campus. Throughout the discussion, he keeps returning to the point that no matter where you are in your creative life and career, you fail and fail again. You learn to figure out what’s going wrong and how it could be better. That becomes your primary way of thinking: puzzling things out, looking at possibilities, following your instincts but also listening to others and recognizing when something isn’t working. Trying again. Knowing when you have hit upon what you were looking for. There’s no way to simplify this; it’s contradictory and complex, because you have to let yourself be both right and wrong. You have to listen to yourself but not only to yourself. You have to try all sorts of things that don’t work out at all. Failures do not end.

In the entire hour, he did not once say “growth mindset,” nor have I heard him say it in any other interviews. I admire his work, especially on SNL (eight seasons), in the HBO series Barry, and in the film The Skeleton Twins, and I enjoy hearing him speak about it. He answers questions courteously and thoughtfully, in his own words, without catchphrases. I am sure he has heard the phrase “growth mindset,” but from what I have heard so far, he hasn’t used it. Why not? I have no way of knowing, but I think he’s saying something slightly different.

The point is not to have a “growth mindset,” or even to strive for one. The point is to tinker with stuff and to tinker well. For fun and for results. Try this, try that, and listen closely. Be alert to what you are doing; catch whatever seems slightly off. But also catch whatever is good. Develop a better and better ear and eye for this.

No one does this across the board. We have a few things in our lives that we tinker continually with, and other things we leave alone. I mean “tinker” in the best possible sense: to fiddle, experiment, play with something in order to get it right. There’s tinkering that leads nowhere or that is done haphazardly, with no clear intention. But once you have a grasp of what you are doing, you start tinkering better. It doesn’t always have to be productive; sometimes you do it playfully, to see what happens.

I don’t assume that Bill Hader agrees with me here. For all I know, he might be a “growth mindset” fan. But he seems more concerned with the work itself, and the possibilities within it, than with a “mindset” of any kind. Yes, this does require certain attitudes and assumptions. You don’t tinker at all if you expect your work to be perfect as soon as it comes out of you. Tinkering requires that you see imperfections. But after that, what really matters is the practice of it, the daily immersion in the work and the questions it brings up.

In the NYFA discussion, he returns several times to the importance of focus–and how you can create focus yourself, just through the way you look at your work. A couple of students ask him how he manages to wear different hats in Barry and elsewhere–as writer, director, and actor–and he responds that he focuses on the story. That way, all his different roles come together, and the focus isn’t on him and all the different things he has to do.

Someone like Bill Hader must have to turn down hundreds of projects and possibilities, not just within film and television, but outside. Why not take up a musical instrument? Learn how to repair a car? Go on a speaking tour? Accept this or that interview request? Please, please? The phrase “I can’t” permits not only survival, but dedication to the projects at hand. Sure, stretching yourself into new areas could represent “growth,” but if you aren’t beholden to a concept of growth mindset, you get to decide what and what not to take on.

That must be one of the most difficult parts of a career like his. Even I, who am nowhere near famous, get requests that I have to turn down, but he must get them all the time. He has some people to filter them, but of those invitations and proposals that do get through to him, he probably takes on only a small fraction. Why? Because infinite availability will kill you. People will not respect your limits.

And there it is. To work on something serious, you also need limits, things you can’t or won’t do, things you say no to, implicitly or out loud. This becomes your den. There, in the warm light, you get down to work.

*Growth mindset, according to Carol Dweck, consists in the belief that one’s “talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others).” Growth mindset proponents routinely oppose growth mindset (good) to fixed mindset (bad). They acknowledge that people have a mixture of mindsets (in which case, is it even a “mindset?”) but ignore the possibility that such a mixture might be necessary.

The photo at the top is courtesy of HBO via a wonderful article in Vanity Fair (Sonya Saraiya, “Barry Is Still Killer in Season 2,” March 29, 2019).

The Phrase “Growth Mindset” and Its Problems

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I have brought up growth mindset, skeptically, many times on this blog; in addition, I dedicated a chapter to it in my second book, Mind over Memes. My basic argument is that we both have and need a mixture of mindsets; while it can be damaging to believe that your abilities are absolutely fixed, there is no evidence that an unfettered belief in growth would benefit anyone. Beyond this, something about “growth mindset” bothers the ear. Conceptual problems aside, the phrase itself rings false.

My criticisms take nothing away from Carol Dweck’s and others’ research; they aren’t about the research. Nor do they disparage those who have been helped by the concept of growth mindset. Rather, I take up the matter from a linguistic and philosophical standpoint. Today I will focus on the linguistic.

I have already brought up the problem with each of the two words. Limitless growth is not always desirable; moreover, our attitudes about improvement may not constitute a “mindset.” Together, the two words ring with an importance that has not been earned. “Growth mindset” sounds like a life solution, an attitude that, once adopted, will open you up to happiness and success. As a result, anyone who questions “growth mindset” gets accused of negativity, even unhappiness. Unless you are a terrible, mean, frustrated person, how could you possibly criticize something that liberates people, that allows them to reach their true potential? If you oppose growth mindset in any way, aren’t you wishing stultification upon the world?

Dostoevsky’s Underground Man would have had a field day with this. But even a happy person, a person who does believe in certain kinds of improvement, can have serious qualms over “growth mindset” as a concept, without being mean or wishing anyone ill. Unfortunately, the very phrase “growth mindset” is constructed to imply otherwise. It’s like “cooperative learning” in that way. If you question or criticize anything about “cooperative learning,” you get written off as uncooperative.

A week ago, in a New York Times article, Alina Tugend wrote about making a mistake, long ago, in a New York Times column. After that mistake, she found herself wondering why people berate themselves so much for mistakes; later she wrote a book on the subject. One of her major sources of insight and inspiration was Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success and the accompanying research, which she summarized in the present article. The next part of the article described an interview with Dweck during the pandemic. Could growth mindset help people through the Covid crisis? Dweck replied with laudable caution, but Tugend offered reasons for optimism. She concluded the article by reflecting on the process of writing it. It had not been easy:

This article, the one you are reading, proved to be a mini-Mount Everest for me. Somehow I couldn’t get it right. My editor offered some helpful comments, but a second try also fell flat. My first thought was “Oh forget it — this just won’t work.” The second thought was an internal wry smile and an acknowledgment that I wasn’t demonstrating much of a growth mind-set. Back to the computer.

Now, scrapping a piece isn’t necessarily a sign of “fixed mindset,” but I’ll leave that aside for now. The point is that this article was more of a personal reflection than anything else. The comments varied widely–some enthusiastic, some critical or skeptical, but I didn’t see anything nasty. No putdowns, no ad hominem remarks. All in all, they were remarkably civil and thoughtful. Then I saw this:

Alina,
Thank you for the article and persevering through the challenges of putting it together. No quick and easy answers in psychology, and mindset only gives us a small part of the big picture, but a useful part. Try not to give these comments too much time, lots of stone throwing unhappy people reading the Times these days. Stay in the light.

I see the commenter’s point about not giving the comments too much time. But what was with those “stone throwing unhappy people”? If people had been hurling insults at her, or even at the article, that remark would have made sense. But if objecting to some aspect of “growth mindset” is tantamount to “stone throwing” or “unhappiness,” then there’s something manipulative about the phrase itself. It automatically casts aspersions on those who sidestep its temple.

Many fads and cults depend on phrases like this, phrases that sound so good on the surface that only a cruel, miserable person could question them. This does not mean that the researchers themselves have sought to create any kind of cult or fad–in fact, they have resisted this, from what I can tell–but the phrase lends itself to that kind of thinking. There are the Good and Enlightened who believe in Growth Mindset, even if their own growth mindset isn’t perfect. Then there are the Bad and Deluded who have reservations of one kind or another. The one group walks in the light, the other in confusion and brambles.

The Underground Man’s words (I decided to quote him after all) hit the mark. This is from Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, Part I, Chapter 10:

You believe in a palace of crystal that can never be destroyed—a palace at which one will not be able to put out one’s tongue or make a long nose on the sly. And perhaps that is just why I am afraid of this edifice, that it is of crystal and can never be destroyed and that one cannot put one’s tongue out at it even on the sly.

You see, if it were not a palace, but a hen-house, I might creep into it to avoid getting wet, and yet I would not call the hen-house a palace out of gratitude to it for keeping me dry. You laugh and say that in such circumstances a hen-house is as good as a mansion. Yes, I answer, if one had to live simply to keep out of the rain.

Exactly! The problem with “growth mindset” as a phrase is that “one will not be able to put out one’s tongue or make a long nose on the sly.” That, and it is more of a hen-house than a palace. It can help with certain things, up to a point, but it is not the answer to all of life, nor is anyone obligated to pursue its perfect, complete manifestation. In fact, there’s reason to think that that would be hell.

The organization MindsetWorks continues to promote the notion that everyone should be on a “journey” to more growth mindset.

Our mindsets exist on a continuum from fixed to growth, and although we’d like to always have a growth mindset, the reality is that we can only be on a journey to a growth mindset. The goal is to recognize fixed mindset elements in ourselves and then reflect on feedback and strategies for how to improve.

This is the “crystal palace” through and through; MindsetWorks not only puts growth mindset forth as an ideal but also leaves no room for the possibility that someone might “be on a journey” to a different destination. No, we are all supposed to examine ourselves for any remaining elements of “fixed mindset” and remove them, one by one, until we all embody perfect growth and eat each other up.

What would I offer instead of “growth mindset”? Well, I see no need for a catchy phrase at all. Instead, adopt a working principle that humans are capable of improvement and learning. Bring that principle into teaching, employment, and other areas of life–show it through your own attitudes and practices–and remember that it does not encompass the truth about a person, a subject, or the world.

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

The Fallacy of Growth Mindset

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Growth mindset, a term coined by Carol Dweck, consists in the belief that your intelligence is malleable: that, through practice and strategic problem-solving, you can become not only more skilled, but smarter. According to Dweck, the opposite of growth mindset is fixed mindset (the belief that your abilities are fixed). Criticism of growth mindset has generally focused on the research. If students are exposed to the concept of growth mindset, do they perform better? Take on more challenges? Persist through failure? The jury is out–but all of this evades a basic philosophical problem: growth mindset has no ultimate superiority or autonomy. People not only have both mindsets, but need both. A world of pure growth mindset would be frenetic and absurd.

I devoted the ninth chapter of Mind over Memes to this topic; I discussed it many times on this blog. Here I will make my points briefly. Each of us has both potential and limitation; the one helps the other. To do one thing well, you have to let yourself not do certain other things. Even young people, capable of doing many things at once, need to set some limits. It should not be shameful, at some point, to say “I can’t.”

Ability itself has outer limits. Most of us can get a little better at just about anything. If I wanted to get a little better at tennis (to the point where I could hit the ball), I probably could. But it’s safe to say that I would never–and I really mean never–make it to Wimbledon, except as an audience member. The same is true even for things that I do well, such as languages. I am getting better at Hungarian by the week. I will get much better within the next few years. Yet I may never reach complete fluency: being able to say anything, accurately and expressively, on any topic within my knowledge.

But even if we could do anything and everything, we would not necessarily want to. There’s something to be said for rest. It is not necessarily lazy to lie down and sleep. It is not necessarily shameful to stop working and take a walk.

It is not a copout to work a job and consider it a job–to leave it at the end of the day. As  a teacher, I take my work home, but there’s a good argument for the contained work week. It allows you to do other things, whatever those may be.

It is not shameful to spend time with others and alone, to go through the many ups and downs of life, and to choose your attentions. But that requires letting yourself be “fixed” in some ways: admitting that you want something other than constant improvement, as important as this may be.

Growth mindset advocates have already admitted that people have a mixture of mindsets. (Are they even mindsets, I wonder?) But they have not acknowledged the possible virtues of the mixture. They have not yet acknowledged that growth mindset is anything but The Answer.

It is good to believe that one can improve, and to know how to do so. But it is also good to to allow for some focus, to acknowledge that we can’t all be everything, and (at some point) to call it a day.

Is “Dream Crazy” Good Advice?

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Here I will not be talking about the boiling controversy around the Nike “Dream Crazy” ad–a controversy about the individuals in the ad, not the ad’s message. Nor do I mean to take the ad as a logical argument; its primary purpose is to promote the Nike brand, and its message serves that end. I bring up the ad only because it stands out as an example of a well-worn and highly (U.S.) American idea: the idea that (a) a certain kind of success, involving money and fame, is all-important; (b) the ones who succeed are the ones who “dream big”; and (c) that such dreamers should let nothing and no one stand in their way. No obstacle is an obstacle, no qualm a qualm; the true champion reduces all hindrances to nothing, simply through power of the mind.

“If people say your dreams are crazy,” says Colin Kaepernick, the ad’s narrator, “if they laugh at what you think you can do–good. Stay that way.” So far, I have no objections. Then he continues: “Because what nonbelievers fail to understand is that calling a dream crazy is not an insult. It’s a compliment. Don’t try to be the fastest runner in your school, or the fastest in the world. Be the fastest ever. Don’t picture yourself wearing OBJ’s jersey. Picture OBJ wearing yours. Don’t settle for homecoming queen or linebacker. Do both.” A little later: “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” The ad continues for a while longer, and he says a bit more, but this is enough for now.

On the surface, the words of the ad sound profoundly humanitarian. People should not hold themselves back; no one has to be inferior to anyone else, or to a dream, or even to the greatest dream imaginable. Each of us, no matter where or how we grew up, has access to infinity.

Yet this version of infinity gives me qualms. Why should a dream consist of becoming the best at something–not only the best right now, but the best ever known? First of all, to the extent that the best can be identified and measured, it has room for only one person; not everyone can be the best. If everyone’s primary goal were to be the best, life would quickly become “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Or to put it differently: there are people who don’t worry about whether they themselves are the best ever at what they do; it is their work that they want to perfect, something within the work that they seek out. Many fields demand this kind of focus. To be an excellent musician, you must be listening intently to the music, working your way toward what you hear or want to hear in your mind. Thoughts about being the best musician of all time might distract you. For sure, there are musicians who aspire to make a mark in history, who hope to go down as one of the best–but others reach heights without thinking in those terms. How does one determine, moreover, who is the best, even in athletics, where numbers are ready at hand? It is not as easy as it may sound.

Second, if you aspire to do your work well, whatever it may be, without necessarily hoping to become the best ever, this does not make you a conformist or lesser person. Striving for visible superiority is highly conformist; voices from all corners tell you to “go for it” and applaud you if you do so. But there are many successes that do not look like an athlete leaping in the air and hurling a ball; there are successes in finding a phrase, discovering a new angle (so to speak) on a math problem, making a delicious gulyás, teaching a class, raising a child, sitting at a dying person’s bedside. This does not mean that a person should eschew all competition; competition has a place. But not all good works look like athletic championship; not all unusual things look alike.

The third problem here–a problem with “growth mindset” as well–is that such an ideal bids us think only in terms of striving, dreaming, going beyond the limit. Any sense of limitation, any thought of mortality, becomes taboo or at best undesirable. Don’t say that you will die one day; dream and act as though you could live forever. But human immortality is not as great as it sounds. The body wears down; the world gets crowded. An endless life could be miserable. Moreover, as long as we have known, and as long as we know now, every human and animal life comes to an end. Do we have to pretend this isn’t true? There’s something shrill and forced about the dogma of limitlessness; it looks away from life.

I do not mean that people should curb their dreams because they will die one day. But it is possible to live with bounds and boundlessness at once: to strive beyond what we know, to carry dreams of different kinds, but also to admit to the end of things, the need for sleep, the presence of others, the worth of simple acts.

I took the photo at the Gulyásfesztivál in Szolnok.

The Bounty of Self-Doubt

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I depend on self-doubt for survival and prosperity. I don’t refer here to existential doubt, which does me little good, except as a starting point. (As a starting point, it has bounty of its own.) I mean the kind where I question my words and actions.

For survival, this allows me to recognize where I am going wrong and make corrections. For prosperity, it allows me to consider possibilities, to look further into questions, to find more in a person, book, or other entity than I have seen before.

The other day a baby kitten came meowing up to me, right outside my apartment building. Then he ran up to someone else who was buzzing one of the apartments. He seemed to know the building and to want to be let in–but his scrawniness and ticks suggested that he lived outdoors.

I had a thought of adopting him. I brought him upstairs, gave him water (which he drank avidly), and let him relax in Minnaloushe’s crate. After a while, I brought him out.

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Minnaloushe seemed relaxed at first, but then she let out a long hiss. I remembered that something similar had happened five and a half years ago when I adopted Aengus. It took Minnaloushe a little while to understand what was going on, but when she did, she wasn’t happy. I held the little kitten on my lap, and he purred and purred; Minnaloushe gazed off into the abstract distance, thinking, “here we go again.” (I have no idea what she was thinking.)

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I didn’t want to put Minnaloushe through this again–especially now, when I am about to leave for the U.S. for a month. It wouldn’t be fair to her or to the cat-sitter to introduce her to a kitten in my absence. Also, the kitty would need a medical exam first;  he might well be sick.

So I brought him back outside. A woman sitting out on the bench told me that he was known to people here–that he had a sibling, and that he was safe near the building. He retreated into the shade of a plant; I comforted myself with the thought that I had brought him back home.

But later I began questioning myself. Couldn’t I have brought him to the vet–to give him shots, have his ticks removed, etc.? Granted, I leave in ten days–but I could explain that to the vet, and we could figure out the best plan. So I will keep an eye out for him; if I see him again, that is what I will do.

In none of this, even the questioning, do I feel that I “did the right thing”; instead, the questioning pulled me out of self-satisfaction. Rarely is it possible to do the right thing completely. Imperfections come up everywhere. Nor is doubt always constructive; you can doubt your way into a tizzy, like the Underground Man. But doubt combined with searching can result in a reasonably good idea, at least something worth trying out.

How does this differ from “growth mindset,” a concept I criticize? I find that the division between growth and fixed mindsets oversimplifies reality. Even in questioning myself here, I stayed within limits. There are courses of action I didn’t consider, even afterward. That isn’t because I am deficient in “growth mindset”; rather, some options were outside of reasonable range for me, and others held no appeal. In much of we do, we combine limit and possibility; the combination allows us to bring actions to completion while still thinking beyond them.

I hope this kitty fares well, and I hope to see him again so that I can take him to the vet.

 

I took the first photo at the farmers’ market in Szolnok and the second photo at home. The third photo (of Minnaloushe) is from a week ago; it doesn’t quite convey the “here we go again” look, but it comes close.

Forms and Meanings of Praise

Last week, while some of my tenth-grade students were taking a make-up test, the others illustrated scenes from Hamlet, in preparation for our event. I had compiled a list of possible quotes; many students chose quotes of their own. There were drawings of Ophelia, the ghost, King Claudius, the play within a play, the slaying of Polonius, the “Words, words, words” scene, and many more.

As I walked around the room and pointed out what I saw in certain pieces, I often met with the response, “No, it’s terrible! I can’t draw!” Some students explained what was wrong with their pieces; some burst into giggles; some stared at the emerging arm on the page, erased it, and stared at the blank page. Here I saw a cultural difference between the U.S. and Hungary; while everywhere you will find students who take pride in their work and students who do not, the proportions differ, with American students being, in my experience, a bit prouder of their work than Hungarians. This difference has something to do with the messages they receive from teachers and others.

First of all, in American schools, just about anything may go up on the wall. Teachers are required to display student work on bulletin boards around the classroom and in hallways–so anything from a Venn diagram to an algebra proof to an essay can end up in public view. Second, there’s an underlying belief that all student work–at least in its final form–should be celebrated. Every student has talent and a voice, according to popular wisdom; all voices should be seen. (I am channeling Pyramus here: “I see a voice.”) Here in Hungary, from what I have seen, not everything gets displayed and celebrated; overall, student work receives more criticism than praise. There’s a basic assumption that all students need to improve (and that they have a long, long way to go). There are exceptions to this–but that’s the overall tendency, at least in comparison with what I have seen in the U.S.

I see promise and problems in both ways. The American attitude (or collection of attitudes) can become too blithe and exuberant, too fixated on the “wonderful.” (When everything is “wonderful,” there’s not much more you can say.) The Hungarian attitude (or collection of attitudes), in contrast, can leave some students thinking that they can’t draw, write, etc., at all. Yet both approaches hold a possible middle way: looking at what is actually going on in the students’ work and considering how to challenge it. Here, in this class assignment, I found an abundance of interesting things. (All the pieces that appear here are posted with the students’ permission.)

Consider the clowns: I am struck by the symmetry between cross and spade, the contrast between the standing and sitting clowns (one big, one little; one with spade, the other with flower); the solemnity of their faces, the colors, and the quote itself. Or the two praying scenes–how did those stick figures become so evocative (in the first) and the crown and cross so luminous (in the second)? Or Hamlet and Horatio: Hamlet with his eyes closed, as though he were seeing a world no one else could see, and Horatio, troubled, looking askance. Or the ghost scenes, ordered and unnerving. Or Ophelia, her thoughts full of water.

If I were an art teacher, I would have more to say, possibly, about the proportions, shading, and so forth–but I am bad at drawing and have little sense of how to improve it. Rather, as a language and literature teacher, I would take cues from the pictures and devote lessons to Shakepeare’s clowns and ghosts. Here, given our time constraints and upcoming event, I have worked to incorporate “pictures” into our rehearsals–that is, to help students imagine and work out the details of the scenes, with attention to every word in the text.

What kind of praise is appropriate in the classroom? Those of the “growth mindset” persuasion often say that teachers should praise students for effort, not for ability or accomplishment. That strikes me as too rigid; different situations call for different kinds of praise. Sometimes students do need to hear that they have a particular ability or that their work stands out. What matters is that the teacher praise and criticize thoughtfully, not automatically, and that she avoid using praise (or criticism) as a way of exerting control. When students depend too much on teachers’ praise or take it too much to heart, they lose their own critical sense. A teacher’s praise should help students find their way.

Praise, like criticism, can do good or harm; what matters is that both teacher and student keep it in perspective and turn it toward the good. It is not an ultimate decree. A teacher can point out what she sees without claiming the last word.

Image credit: The eight drawings are by students in class 10C at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok; they are posted with the students’ permission.

Why Imagination Matters

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Our schools have vacillated between adulating and dismissing imagination; neither attitude suffices. Imagination involves forming things in the mind; education cannot do without it. Yet to employ it well, one must understand it correctly and combine it with actual learning.

In his bracing book Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing our Children from Failed Educational Theories, E. D. Hirsch Jr. explores the origins and consequences of our schools’ emphasis on “natural” creativity and imagination at the expense of concrete learning. He points to the destructive effects of this trend, both in the United States and in France (which moved from a common curriculum to a child-centered mode of instruction). In addition, he offers wise commentary on standardized tests, the teaching profession, and the Common Core initiative.

An admirer of Hirsch’s work and of Core Knowledge schools, I object to just one aspect of his argument: By opposing creativity and imagination to specific training and instruction, he limits both. Recognizing this possible pitfall, he acknowledges that a school with a strong curriculum can still encourage imagination—but he does not treat the latter as vital and endangered. Imagination, in his view, has been overemphasized; the necessary corrective lies in specific, sequenced instruction.

He writes (on p. 119): “I am not, of course, suggesting that it would be a good idea to adopt the in-Adam’s-fall-we-sinned-all point of view. Imagination can certainly be a positive virtue when directed to life-enhancing goals. But the idea that imagination is always positive and life-enhancing is an uncritical assumption that has crept into our discourse from the pantheistic effusions of the romantic period.” I dispute nothing in this statement but the emphasis (and the take on Romanticism–but that’s another subject). I would proclaim: “Imagination has been wrested apart from subject matter and thus distorted—but properly understood, it permeates all intellectual domains.”

What is imagination? It is not the same as total freedom of thought; it has strictures and structures. To imagine something is to form an image of it. Every subject requires imagination: To understand mathematics, you must be able to form the abstract principles in your mind and carry them in different directions; to understand a poem, you must perceive patterns, cadences, allusions, and subtleties. To interpret a work of literature, you must notice something essential about it (on your own, without any overt highlighting by the author or editor); to interpret a historical event, you may transport yourself temporarily to its setting.

Civic life, too, relies on imagination; to participate in dialogue, you must perceive possibility in others; to make informed decisions, you must not only know their history but anticipate their possible consequences. Imagination forms the private counterpart of public life; to participate in the world, you must be able to step back and think on your own, as David Bromwich argues in his essay “Lincoln and Whitman as Representative Americans” (and elsewhere).

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave describes the cultivation of the imagination. The uneducated mind, the prisoner in the cave, accepts the appearances of things (as manipulated by others); once embarked upon education, it slowly, painfully moves toward vision of true form. People are quick to dismiss Plato’s idealism as obsolete—but say what you will, it contains the idea of educating oneself into imagination, which could inform many a policy and school.

Schools and school systems have grievously misconstrued imagination; drawing on Romantic tendencies, as Hirsch explains, they have regarded it as “natural” and therefore good from the start. If imagination is best when unhampered and untouched, if it is indeed a process of nature, then, according to these schools, children should be encouraged to write about whatever pleases them, to read books of their own choice, and to create wonderful art (wonderful because it is theirs). Some years ago I taught at a school where we were told not to write on students’ work but instead to affix a post-it with two compliments and two suggestions–so as not to interfere with the students’ own voice.

This is silly, of course. Serious imaginative work—in music, mathematics, engineering, architecture, and elsewhere—requires knowledge, discipline, self-criticism, and guidance from others. You do not learn to play piano if your teacher keeps telling you, “Brilliant, Brilliant!” (or even, in growth-mindset parlance, “How hard you worked on that!”). To accomplish something significant, you need to know what you are doing; to know, you must learn. Mindset aside, you must be immersed in the material and striving for understanding and fluency. You must listen closely; you must acknowledge and correct errors.

Learning draws on imagination and vice versa; a strong curriculum is inherently imaginative if taught and studied properly. Students learn concrete things so that they can think about them, carry them in the mind, assemble them in interesting ways, and create new things from them. On their own, in class, and in faculty meetings, teachers probe and interpret the material they present. This intellectual life has both inherent and practical value; the student not only comes to see the possibilities of each subject but lives out such possibilities in the world.

Hirsch objects, commendably, to the trivialization of curriculum and imagination alike: for instance, the reduction of literature instruction to “balanced literacy” (where students practice reading strategies on an array of books that vary widely in quality). Conducted in the name of student interest, creativity, initiative, and so forth, such programs can end up glorifying a void.

Without strong curricula, creative and imaginative initiatives will lack meaning, especially for disadvantaged students who rely on school for fundamentals. You cannot learn subjects incidentally; while you may gain insights from a creative algebra project, it cannot replace a well-planned algebra course.

But imagination belongs at the forefront of education, not on the edges; it allows us to live and work for something more than surface appearance, hits, ratings, reactive tweets, and prefabricated success. Imagination reminds us that there is more to a person, subject, or problem than may appear at first. It enables public, social, private, economic, intellectual, and artistic life. Without it, we fall prey to shallow judgment (our own and others’); within it, we have room to learn and form.

 

Photo credit: I took this picture yesterday in Poets’ Walk Park in Red Hook, NY.

Leviticus 13: Complexity and Simplicity

The other day I related the complexity of Leviticus 13 (which I had read, i.e., chanted, on the previous Shabbat) to the complexity of the human condition. In my mind, at the time, it was all complexity, complexity of complexities. In this complexity I found beauty. Now I see, at the same time, a logical and structural simplicity.

Leviticus 13, which forms part of the Torah portion Tazria, describes the diagnosis, treatment, and ritual purification of people with various skin disorders, which may or may not be “nega tzaraat,” or “the plague of [leprosy]” (it is commonly translated as “leprosy,” but we don’t know what the disease actually was).

As I discussed before, these verses present special challenges for the readers. Words and phrases repeat many times, but within different grammatical structures (and thus with different trope, or melody). It does not work to associate a phrase with a melody. You have to learn both trope and text in a different way.

Today we have our last cantillation class. We were supposed to bring some pedagogical materials that we use when teaching cantillation to others. (Most of the students are preparing to be cantors.) Since I have never taught anyone else how to leyn, I thought about how I might go about learning Tazria, if I were to do it again.

Then it came to me. In the earlier part of chapter 13, in many of the verses, the first part of the verse has to do with the symptoms and general diagnosis; the second, with the action or treatment (and sometimes the reason as well). The two parts are divided by a melodic phrase called etnachta, which indicates a pause analogous to our semicolon. (It appears under its corresponding syllable and looks somewhat like a curved caret.)

So there you have it: symptoms and diagnosis in the first half, and treatment or action in the second.

But you can break it down still further. Within the first half, the symptoms are sometimes grouped in phrases; these phrases are separated by a zakef katon, a trope that indicates something like a strong comma–not quite an etnachta, but closer than many of the other disjunctives, or melodic separators. (It appears above the syllable and looks like a colon.) In fact, sometimes this zakef katon separates specific symptoms from a more general diagnosis. In the second part of the verse, the zakef katon may separate two possible actions.

I am not doing justice to the topic of parsing; there’s much more to it than this, both within these verses and in general. I am just looking at a particular relation between structure and meaning. When you consider it in this way, everything falls into place–if not in this particular way, then in other ways.

Take, for example, Leviticus 13:2 (I have set the etnachta phrase in blue and the zakef katon phrases in green; the quoted text is courtesy of the Mechon Mamre website):

ב אָדָ֗ם כִּֽי־יִהְיֶ֤ה בְעוֹר־בְּשָׂרוֹ֙ שְׂאֵ֤ת אֽוֹ־סַפַּ֨חַת֙ א֣וֹ בַהֶ֔רֶת וְהָיָ֥ה בְעוֹר־בְּשָׂר֖וֹ לְנֶ֣גַע צָרָ֑עַת וְהוּבָא֙ אֶל־אַֽהֲרֹ֣ן הַכֹּהֵ֔ן א֛וֹ אֶל־אַחַ֥ד מִבָּנָ֖יו הַכֹּֽהֲנִֽים׃

“When a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a rising, or a scab, or a bright spot, and it become in the skin of his flesh the plague of leprosy, then he shall be brought unto Aaron the priest, or unto one of his sons the priests.”

Up through “bright spot,” you see a description of the symptoms; in the next phrase, the larger condition (the plague of leprosy); and after “leprosy,” the possible actions: bringing him to Aaron the priest (pause) or to one of his sons.

You can hear Hazzan (Cantor) Rob Menes of Congregation Beth Shalom read this verse. He announces the verse numbers in English as he goes along, so just listen for “two” (and continue listening after that, of course).

Of course this is not the pattern throughout; but once you see how it works, you can find other patterns too. Many Biblical verses have a kind of semantic symmetry; once you see the relation between the two main parts, you can see other relations as well.

If I were teaching this portion (to myself or anyone else), I would encourage the person to think in terms of the logical patterns and their meaning: in this case, in terms of symptoms, diagnosis, and subsequent treatment or action. We would start with this pattern and then find some of the others. We would parse a few verses systematically and completely, for the practice and understanding–but other verses we would view in terms of cadence, movement, symmetry, and meaning.

The portion still requires hours of practice (for me, at least), but it’s much easier when I not only see the smaller and larger structures at once but relate them to the narration.

This leads to a subject that might seem off-topic at first: “growth mindset.” In a group of previous posts, I questioned the assertion (now widely popularized) that people have either a “fixed mindset” (an assumption that their abilities are fixed) or a “growth mindset” (a belief that they can improve) and that a “growth mindset” is conducive to success, while a “fixed mindset” is not. I argue that we both have and need a mixture of mindsets.

After stumbling over this reading last Saturday, I was definitely not in “growth mindset.” I felt terrible. I thought it was the worst I had ever done (even though it was the longest and trickiest portion I had tried to learn in a short time). My disappointment was unreachable; people’s kind and encouraging words barely grazed my skin. But I had no doubt that I wanted to persist with cantillation. Also, I knew I wanted to figure out what went wrong. So as soon as the distress passed, I went back to the verses. That is when I saw the pattern.

Someone might say, “But with a total ‘growth mindset,’ you can skip over the distress altogether; that way, you’ll be more productive.” The distress has an important place, though; it comes from longing. When I am discouraged by my own performance (in the sense of carrying out a form), it’s because it matters to me to do well. The mattering carries me forward.

That brings out another possible meaning of the portion and the next one. Sarah Krinsky, a rabbinic fellow at B’nai Jeshurun, gave a magnificent D’var Torah (commentary, interpretation, sermon) on the purification process for the leprous person. Once the priest has pronounced him unclean, his clothes must be torn, he must let his hair loose, and he must cry, “Unclean, unclean” (Leviticus 13:45). On the one hand, this seems like humiliation; why should the person be forced to cast such stigma on himself? On the other, it can be taken as a statement of truth and a call for help and compassion. The person does not stay “unclean” forever.

My discouragement was much like a cry of “Unclean, unclean.” I knew I had not done well. By seeing and feeling this, without mitigation or immediate “positive thinking,” I could then proceed to do better.

I am glad for human complexity and structures of simplicity; I am grateful for cadence and mattering.

Note: I revised this piece in several stages after posting it. For much more on trope and how it works, I recommend Joshua Jacobson’s 965-page book Chanting the Hebrew Bible.

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?

Are Mindsets Really Packageable?

growth-mindset-cheerJesse Singal  posted a new piece (on the original URL) correcting his previous assertions about “growth mindset.” He acknowledges that he relied too much on a BuzzFeed article by Tom Chivers instead of doing his research. He discusses some of the research that he overlooked and encourages us to read Carol Dweck’s new post defending her theory.

I commend him for the self-correction but think he went overboard in replacing the article. (Granted, he didn’t delete the original; he links to the JPEG of it. Still, it’s effectively gone; it doesn’t appear in his archive.) The reasons for questioning “growth mindset” (as both a serious theory and a fad) go far beyond the momentary or trivial. His mode of questioning may have been limited, but it was a start.

What is the real problem here? Dweck, by her account, has conducted the research carefully, conscientiously, and skeptically; unfortunately, she says, the theory has been misunderstood and misapplied by teachers. (I’ll get to that in a moment.) But the theory rests on a dichotomous proposition: that there is such a thing as “growth mindset” as opposed to “fixed mindset,” and that people have one or the other. I propose that people have a mixture of both–and that, rather than driving everything we do, they accompany or follow other drivers.

As I said yesterday, it makes sense (as a teacher, student, or anyone else) to focus on one’s capacity for improvement rather than exclusively on static achievement. But (as I also said) the latter has a place as well. It matters to do something well, period, regardless of how much we have “grown”  toward it. I want my poem to be good. Yes, I want to grow as a writer, but if the poems don’t hold up, who cares about my growth? A person needs a combination of growth and fixity.

On his new blog Statistical Thinking, the Frank Harrell names one of the problems in the field of statistics:

Subject matter experts (e.g., clinical researchers and epidemiologists) try to avoid statistical complexity by “dumbing down” the problem using dichotomization, and statisticians, always trying to be helpful, fail to argue the case that dichotomization of continuous or ordinal variables is almost never an appropriate way to view or analyze data.

I wonder whether he would say that “growth mindset” theory suffers from dichotomization; I believe it does. Not only do we have a mixture of mindsets, but the mixture may be the best of all states. Who’s to say that everyone needs more, more, more growth mindset? An excess of it would be maddening. A bit of fixed mindset allows a person to go to sleep or to set something aside.

Beyond that, the very focus on mindset seems to miss something. In a calculus class, I do not want the professor to talk about mindset. I want her to talk about the actual problems. Now, it does make a difference if she implicitly recognizes that students can improve, that their performance on the test is not an ultimate statement about them. She can convey this in all sorts of subtle ways. But my own mindset will be better off if the professor focuses on what we are learning.

Some students may benefit from explicit instruction in mental habits and attitudes. Others pick up on all sorts of implicit suggestions and cues. So yes, schools should carefully consider what messages they are sending. They should also guard against psychological cheerleading.

Dweck states that her early optimism over school implementation faded when she saw how poorly teachers and parents understood growth mindset:

Although we were originally optimistic about teachers’ ability to readily apply growth mindset in their classrooms, we began to learn things that tempered this optimism. We began to see and accumulate research evidence that the growth mindset concept was poorly understood by many parents and educators and that adults might not know how to pass a growth mindset on to children, even when they reported holding it for themselves.

 

I don’t think she meant this, but it’s easy to take her words to mean, “those benighted teachers and parents fail to understand our scholarship.” In any case, she implies that the problems with implementation are at least partly due to teachers’ and parents’ misunderstandings of the concept. She points to a survey suggesting that teachers have little confidence in their ability to teach growth mindset in the classroom.

But what if this misunderstanding and lack of confidence came from the very weaknesses and limitations of the theory? What if it were true that mindsets cannot be so easily divided, and that we benefit from their combination? Perhaps teachers and parents are picking up on this possibility; perhaps this intuition, or something like it, was behind Singal’s original post.

I leave off with the question: Are mindsets really packageable?

Image credit: YouTube video: “Growth Mindset Cheer!

Note: I edited this piece in several stages after posting it.

Update: In an Education Week article (and perhaps elsewhere as well), Dweck acknowledges that we have mixtures of “fixed” and “growth” mindsets. But does she consider that the very mixture of “fixed” and “growth” mindsets may play a beneficial role in our lives? This came up in the comments; I will dedicate a separate piece to the question within the next few days.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • TEDx Talk

    Delivered at TEDx Upper West Side, April 26, 2016.

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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