According to Carol Dweck, the fixed mindset is deeply imbedded in our culture. A fixed mindset limits the way we think about ourselves, and it stifles our imagination about what we can become. A fixed mindset is, well, fixed. It seldom takes into consideration that if we invest time and effort, and if we persevere, we can improve our performance, we can become better at just about anything. A fixed mindset creates for children an insurmountable, mental obstacle that causes retreat from challenges, opportunities and problems.
A growth mindset, or what I am calling a thriving mindset, thinks differently. It declares our effort and commitment are better predictors of success than ability. A thriving mindset empowers us to attack life with hope and expectation. But unlike a fixed mindset, the thriving mindset requires education and cultivation. It is formed through an experiential cycle of teaching and training. The ideal time for this cycle is from the age of reasoning (ages 5-7) through early adolescence (ages 12-15). During this period children learn the meaning of a thriving mindset and then have the opportunity to practice it.
A good example of this teaching and training cycle occurred a few years ago. I started the school year with a bright group of fifth grade children who had already mastered most of their computation skills. Seeing their level of achievement, I decided to introduce them to operations with negative integers, an advanced topic for this age, but certainly within their ability. Unfortunately, even after extensive instruction, I was not getting through. They did not get it.
Spontaneously my students’ fixed mindset raised its defeated head. They whined, “I don’t like this. I don’t want to do this. I’m not good at this.” They complained, “This is too hard. I don’t get it. I don’t like math.” And they blamed, “This doesn’t make sense.” There were even a few tears of frustration. It was a golden moment for the cycle – a little teaching, then some training. I calmed their emotions and acknowledged the difficulty of this topic. Then I started to work on cultivating a thriving mindset.
Teaching came first. I knew many of them were involved in formal music and sports development programs after school. We reviewed how soccer players learn to dribble and how cellists learn to play new pieces. We talked about the frustrations involving in trying to improve skills, how we want to quit, how we want to take short cuts and compromise. We talked about how we often complain that our coach or teacher is too mean or too strict. Our conversation highlighted the fact that becoming a good soccer player or cellist is hard work. But the secret to improvement is commitment and practice. Reinforcing the lesson, we also talked about behavioral differences between children in first grade and older students in eighth grade. Secretly alluding to their own behaviors during this math challenge, I explained to them how first grade children give up whenever tasks become too hard. This is normal. They are little children. They don’t have the strength to face challenging situations. I told them stories about my grandchildren who, the moment they sense a challenging situation, run to the arms of their moms crying for comfort. How typical and normal.
Continuing, however, I explained how strong young people overcome their whining, complaining and blaming. They rise up to face their challenges. They learn attitudes and strategies that help them become “conquerors.” They bear down on their work. They ask questions. They get help from teachers and friends. They find a way to succeed.
Their eyes brightened. It was that “I can do this” look. It was time to begin training. I modeled strategies, illustrating how to memorize the basic rules of computations with negative integers and then how to apply these rules to one problem after another. We practiced, and then we practiced again. Before long they were experiencing success. As their understanding grew, their faces beamed. We were not only learning how to do operations with negative integers, but more importantly we were making the journey from a fixed mindset to a thriving mindset. Certainly this journey is not accomplished after just one lesson. This was just the beginning, and I was glad that I would have these students for three more years. That meant three more years of repeating the teaching and training cycle until habits are formed.