How smart are you? Really. How smart do you think you are? How do you know? What about your students? How smart are they? How smart to they think they are? Does it matter?
Psychologists use a lot of intertwining ideas to describe how we think about ourselves, our abilities, and our capacity for change: self-efficacy, goal directedness, intrinsic motivation, and so forth. Each concept gives us a slightly different way of viewing the ways our patterns of thinking affect our beliefs and actions.
One of the more powerful views comes from researcher Carol Dweck, who has been investigating motivation for decades. Dweck was fascinated by the differences in the ways some students approached difficult—or even impossible—problems
These observations led Dweck to the concept of “mindsets,” the general views we have of our intelligence or other abilities. In a fixed mindset, we believe abilities are generally predetermined, or “fixed.” In this view, we are born with a particular amount of intelligence, athletic ability, musical talent, or whatever, and that amount of “stuff” determines how smart, athletic, or musical we will be. In contrast, if we hold a growth mindset, we believe abilities can be developed. However bright, athletic, or musical we are, a growth mindset holds that we can get better. Dweck’s research has demonstrated that differences in mindset make profound differences in the ways we approach tasks—and even the tasks we are willing to approach. It affects the way we take (or don’t take) risks and the ways we interpret mistakes.
Dweck asked people, from elementary school to adulthood, when they felt smart. With a fixed mindset, people said things like, “When I don’t make any mistakes,” “When I finish fast and its perfect,” or “When something is easy for me but not for other people.” In contrast, those with a growth mindset described feeling smart “When it’s really hard, and I try really hard, and I can do something I couldn’t do before” or “When I work on something a long time and I start to figure it out.”
Think about what this means for school behaviors. Students with a fixed mindset interpret whether they are smart or not by their performance. Not surprisingly, they are less likely to seek out challenges, look for the “easy A” and give up quickly on things that are difficult. After all, if you aren’t “Good at it” what’s the point? Sound like anyone you know? In contrast, students with a growth mindset are more likely to embrace challenges and persist when things get tough.
I found another finding even more surprising. Students with different mindsets studied differently. Students with a fixed mind set needed good grades to demonstrate they were smart. So while they were busy trying to figure out what the teacher wanted, memorize exactly the right things, and repeat those things exactly the right way, guess what students with a growth mindset were doing? Focusing on learning. They worked hard to find key ideas, make sense of the material, and keep themselves motivated. They worked to learn for understanding, because for them the learning was the point. They believed they could get better, so they worked at doing that.
And just imagine what a difference in mindset could mean for creativity. A fixed mindset makes students avoid risks, give up when the going gets tough and focus on other people’s opinions. A set of behaviors better designed to squash creativity would be hard to design. Fortunately, teachers and parents have a great deal of power to influence mindset. Next time, I’ll share some strategies.
Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Ballantine Books.
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