I’d heard about mindsets, read articles, attended workshops. Friends who are educators had talked with me about Carol Dweck’s work, and I’d bobbed my head. My wife, her masters degree in psychology, had discussed the importance of the ideas Dweck put forth in her book “Mindset” (especially when I’d experienced setbacks and was glooming my way around the house). I thought I’d heard; I know I’d nodded, and I believed I had a pretty good idea about the importance of bringing a “Growth Mindset” to my life and work. Then this summer, on the doorstep of a new principal job, I made it a project to add “Mindset” to my summer reading list. Finally I started to listen.
This notion of “Fixed” and “Growth” mindsets, that had been buzzing in the air around me for almost a decade finally landed on my nose and began a conversation. In Dweck’s short book (perfect for July, the educator’s month for reading) I saw both a clear explanation of these two ways of engaging in the world and great examples that brought the importance of acting mindfully (as an educator and as a parent) home.
In the “Growth Mindset” I recognized some of the people I admire: a student who delivered his graduation speech on his journey to the US from a small village in Columbia, learning English as a third language, after Spanish and his own native dialect; a football player I coached who lacked the initial physical ability he needed to start on the team, but worked hard and learned from his struggles, ending up a very good player; and a student who took the Beginning Drawing class I taught, doubting her abilities until she saw progress, then progressing beyond the rest of the class as she realized how much she loved putting pencil to paper. These students had inspired me, and as I saw a way to look at the common denominator of “Growth Mindset” (with a focus on learning from mistakes and embracing adversity as a way to get better), I realized how important it is to cultivate this way of engaging with the world both in myself and in my school.
These students were not deterred by failing. They were not demoralized by not getting things right. Instead, all three, like so many whose lives are made richer because of their perseverance and positive attitude, stuck to the belief that they could improve, they would make progress, and they would not be defined by setback. We sometimes say that “all children can learn,” but these students lived it. Dweck’s examples are fantastic, but these students brought “Growth Mindset” to life for me.
I also clearly saw the “Fixed Mindset” (viewing challenges as threatening and failures as catastrophic) and recognized more of this in me than I’d like to admit. As a student, an athlete, and a young teacher, I worked hard, but felt like things either came easy or were tragic failures. I believed that I was able to succeed not because of the work I put in, but because I was somehow simply a good student, a good athlete, a good teacher, and that when I wasn’t successful the cost was more than a low grade, a strikeout, or a lousy lesson plan; I felt like the failures were me.
This, coupled with an upbringing filled with more love than responsibility, helped to foster in me a way of looking at the world that made challenges tough. And challenges always come.
In the face of those challenges, I’m fortunate to have great support, a wise wife, and enough brains to realize that the best way to succeed was to stick to it, whatever it is, and not lose hope. As a person who strives for optimism and wants to continue to learn, “Mindset” reminded me to stay focused on engagement, not the fear of failure, and learning, not the measurement of success. I think I’ve gotten better about this as I’ve gotten older, and know I want to continue to grow as I move forward as a parent and a professional. A “Growth Mindset” is something I can choose.
Reading Dweck’s book was also a nice reminder of how important it can be to go back to the source of things. The discussion of mindsets had been going on all around me, but it wasn’t until I made the time to pick up what she’d written that I really got it. I know many folks reading this will have already read her book, but for any like me who thought the summary was enough, I encourage you to spend the time to read “Mindset” and see if you feel the same inspiration I do.
I am inspired, and now feel compelled to take the student-supporting work back to my school.
The challenge, as I relate it to the work I do, is to collaborate with the teachers, parents, students, and staff at my school to create a culture that goes beyond talking about “Growth Mindset” and rolls up its sleeves and actually gets to work. As we learn together we foster this way of thinking. As we prepare for life (not just tests) and view the education process as more than a series of exercises and exams, we grow. And as we recognize that we all can get better when we’re held to high standards and supported to reach those rigorous goals, we bring out the best in education.
I’ve got a lot to learn about what this looks like every day, but I’m fortunate to work with some pretty great people (some of whom will be getting a copy of “Mindset” as a gift in the very near future), and I’m ready to learn from both successes and failures along the way. Dweck describes the culture created by a “Growth Mindset” as “an inclusive, learning-filled, rollicking journey.” There’s a freedom in that, and one that I look forward to bringing from my beach reading in July to my work in the fall.