By Barbara Dwyer
“Would you like an easy problem or a hard one?” asks the teacher as the third grader nervously stares at the unmarked, white-board table. “Oh, easy, please,” answers the child, relieved she will not have to do hard math. “We don’t do easy math here,” replies the teacher. “Easy math is boring. Watch.” The teacher carefully writes 1 + 1 on the white-board table. “Can you answer this problem?” The child giggles, “Yes,” and carefully writes a 2 under the line. Nodding, the teacher questions, “Would you like to just do this kind of problem over and over again, or would you like to do some fun problems?” This is the moment where the teacher discovers if the child has a growth or fixed mindset.
Research by the eminent Stanford psychologist, Carol Dweck, has shown that in a fixed mindset the belief is that intelligence is fixed and static. You are either smart, or you are not smart. This belief is the either-or principal of intelligence and was the widely accepted theory of cognitive development until the 50’s and 60’s. In contrast, a growth mindset is the belief that intelligence is active and that the brain changes (grows) based on experiences. This theory of growth mindset is supported by research into brain plasticity and has proven to be pivotal in helping students improve their academic achievement.
“Harder, please,” the child answers. The teacher nods, understanding that the child has a growth mindset and math will soon become one of the child’s favorite subjects. If the child would have answered, “More like this one,” the teacher would then begin to try to break through some of the child’s defenses, realizing the child is demonstrating a fixed mindset and is becoming a non-learner.
“I don't divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures, those who make it or those who don't. I divide the world into learners and non-learners.”
― Benjamin R. Barber
Our babies are not born non-learners. They have a tenacious desire to learn. They try and learn seemingly insurmountable skills like standing up, walking, climbing stairs, even running. They don’t give up after multiple failed attempts; they keep trying until they succeed. Then they learn to speak (multiple languages simultaneously if there are several languages spoken in the home). They discover humor and they memorize stories read to them by their parents. For our babies, failure is the first step in the formula of success.
What happens? Why does the formula change? The answer is, when children become able to evaluate themselves some become afraid to take chances, afraid that they are not smart enough. Such children develop a fixed mindset. Every mistake means, “Oh, I’m not good at this. Maybe I’m not smart enough.” Every time they begin to struggle with new material, their internal chatter shouts, “Maybe I won’t be good at this and will never get it. Maybe I will make a mistake. I mustn’t make a mistake. I must only succeed.” Their fixed mindset makes them insecure about their ability. Over time, this insecurity forces them to stay within their comfort zone(s), rather than risk failure by trying something new and difficult.
There is not a parent alive who wakes up in the morning and wants to turn their children into non-learners. No way! We love our children and only want them to be happy and have a successful life. For years I thought I had the answer to this goal. I believed that my children’s self-esteem was the answer to self-confidence and these qualities would certainly lead to success. It was my job as their mother to ensure that my children were praised for all of their abilities in school, on the sports field, and in life. On the soccer field, my son was a good player and the coaches all wanted him on their team, “You have a natural talent and just seem to know where that ball is going to go! Why don’t you come join my team?” I was so proud of him. “You are the best player out there! You may become the greatest soccer player ever!” Even when his team lost the coach would tell him, “That other team was just lucky, today.” The truth was that he had missed two passes - because he was not paying attention - and that was the reason the other team had won, but I knew how badly he was going to feel about himself and I couldn’t allow my young champion to doubt himself, could I? “You did great, today, son! The coaches are right. You are a natural soccer player, just like Pele.” My son only played a couple of years and I couldn’t figure out why he quit. Now I understand that he was out there to have fun with his friends and not to have to live up to the greatness potential the coaches and I had thrust upon him.
What are the messages we are sending to our children?
“I am so proud of you. You didn’t even need to open a book and study! You are so smart! I love you!” What happens when the child does not comprehend a concept the teacher is trying to explain and must open a book to understand it? To the child it may mean, “I did have to open a book to understand this. Does this mean that mom may not be proud of me because I was not smart enough? Does this mean she doesn’t love me?”
“Oh my gosh, look how quickly you solved those problems and you didn’t make any mistakes! Wow. You are terrific!” What we are actually telling our child is that we want speed and perfection. Is it possible that your child will translate your statement into, “These problems are really tough and I don’t know if I can do them? My parents think I’m smart because I’m fast and get things right. I better not try hard things.”
We need to emphasize to our children that speed and perfection are not a part of the formula for success in learning material that is difficult. As hard as we may try as parents to be supportive, we may not realize the mindsets we are actually developing in our children.
One of the most common reasons people seek out tutoring services for their older children is the mindset caused by test anxiety. “Jessica does all of her homework and always gets 100%. She studies very hard and we know she is a smart girl, but when she takes her math or history or English or Spanish or Chemistry or … test … she always fails it! We think she has test anxiety.” In reality, Jessica is bright and does study. She knows the material, but come test time her mind goes blank. Her internal dialog goes something like this: “I am not going to pass this test, again. I’m going to disappoint my parents who have so much faith in me and I will probably not get into my dream college. If I don’t get into that college, my whole life will be ruined!”
What happened the night before the test? “Jessica, we know how smart you are and you know how smart you are. You have this material down! Put the book away and get some rest. You can do this! Stop worrying!”
These words are said in love, but won’t help Jessica. What she needs to hear is that you understand how it feels to be evaluated when you can’t fully demonstrate what you know. She also needs to hear that you won’t be evaluating her and that you are now, as always, proud of how hard she works; she has tenacity and it is tenacity – the never giving up – that, after all the tests are completed, marks the winners in this game of life.
Okay parents, what’s next? After finishing reading Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset, I knew her research was right. I had experienced a fixed mindset in my own life and knew I had helped create one in the lives of my children. I had to change the way I looked at learning, growth, and success. Change is not easy. Mark Twain wrote, “The only person who likes change is a wet baby.” And I agree with him. No one likes change, but I have never heard anyone say the effort was not worth the result. I needed to change and so I did. That change has brought additional richness in my daily dealings with my families and their children, my students. I have seen firsthand how quickly children adapt to the new language and change their ideas of what makes them successful. They begin to take a chance on themselves and there is nothing more powerful to the intellectual growth of children than having them change their minds about themselves. So what’s next? Read Mindset and then drop by and we’ll do some really hard math problems, together.
Article Featured in the September/October Issue of Vacaville Magazine