How Growth Mindset Liberates Learners from the Social Stigmas of "Inferiority"
Stanford educational psychologist Carol Dweck has done remarkable work across cultures, age groups, and both elite and disadvantaged populations showing that, if we accept the idea that our intelligence is somehow "fixed" (by genetics, birth, innate capability, station in life, etc), our ability to learn is equally fixed.
In several decades of crosscultural research, she has found that underrepresented minorities, women, the impoverished, those with disabilities, and others who have been socially stigmatized and marginalized (deemed somehow mentally "inferior") are most likely to have inherited the idea that that condition is somehow fixed, the result of innate, unchangeable individual characteristics, not contingencies of circumstance or social conditions that can be changed. In this, her work is quite different from work such as that on "grit" which seems to leave the onus on individuals and almost blames the victims for lacking grit when they do not succeed.
Not so for Dweck's idea of growth mindset. Rather, her research (in impoverished communities in Chile, on Native American reservations, in urban communities, in prisons, and elsewhere) underscores that believing in one's own potential for growth can result in actual growth. This means unlearning a demeaning social definition of one's self and, instead, believing one can grow and thereby growing into one's own possibilities for agency.
Growth, Empowerment, Community, Social Change
The idea sounds simple but it has profound implications for anyone who teaches, especially for anyone who teaches students who are used to feeling disempowered. Dweck's work on mindset is rooted in a social understanding of the relationship of knowledge and power applied to pedagogy: if we can teach someone that they have the capacity to grow--that even their brains and neurons can grow--from facing challenges, by working through problems that they might fail at first, by overcoming difficulties, and by slowly mastering more and more difficult material, it turns out that they can actually grow, as individuals and as whole communities. (The research and practice in one of the lowest performing school districts in the Seattle area, a Native American reservation, that has been transformed to one of the highest performing through growth mindset training is pretty awesome).
It is "pedagogy of the oppressed" (Dweck's original training is in Latin American pedagogies) wedded onto some cognitive neuroscience and translated into practical pedagogical tactics that others can learn and use. The key point is that, by believing we have a growth rather than a fixed mental capacity, we are actually expanding our mental capacities and not just learning but growing our ability to learn. We learn more by shedding a received notion of ourselves as incapable of learning.
That should be obvious but post-Darwinian, Bell Curve, IQ-based, multiple choice, summative test, outcomes-based educational outcomes, instilled since at least the mid-19th century and the Industrial Age educational reforms, have all emphasized ability, achievement, Intelligence, and other static qualities. Implicitly or explicitly, they imply these qualities are fixed, not about growth and infinite potential. Carol Dweck's work shows in theoretical and practical terms how to change this. Her work, and that of her students, in Chile, in impoverished Native American reservations, in prisons, with under-represented minorities shows enormous possibilities for success if those who are made to feel inferior can, instead, see themselves as capable of growth.
Powerfully, such growth has both individual and social benefits since community, activism, social justice, and social change also arise from a sense of agency and empowerment.
Last Frontier of Growth Mindset: Teachers and Professors.
And now we tackle the last frontier of growth-mindset: teachers and professors. How do we encourage those who are empowered to be teachers to have such a mindset about their own ability to change and learn? That is the challenge. For of Dweck's work focuses on the disadvantaged, the ways social marginalization imposes a vision of fixed and inferior mental capacities on kids, what happens when the whole apprenticeship process of earning a PhD and the rewards system of the academy is designed to tell you that you are in a position of authority.
Of precarious authority. It's a bad combination, to feel your entire career is precarious and to be in a position of authority and control in the classroom. The social and psychological condition of being a professor, including the apprenticeship system, might well be a deterrent to change and growth. It's interesting to think of what mindset training could do for professors and teachers too.
(Rhetorical question: can you be a student-centered teacher if you do not see yourself as a co-learner? The answer is a resounding "no." Being a co-learner is not a positiion that comes easily to many who go into teaching as a profession.)
But think about the institutional as well as the pedagogical possibilities if profs and teachers can see themselves, too, as having the power to change and grow. Does that not also increase their own ability to act collectively for greater social justice, in the classroom and beyond it?
Might growth mindset be a way to move beyond turf--it has proven to be such for disenfranchised groups.It's an intriguing possibility to consider.
3 Ways to Encourage Growth Mindset in Faculty
This article suggests three basic ways to encourage growth mindset in faculty. These methods will be familiar to any HASTAC network member:
Profs should think of themselves not just as teachers but as co-learners. Just as students can improve, so can profs. Admitting one doesn't know something is not a source of shame but of empowerment, growth, solidarity with others, collaboration, community, and agency.
- Institutions--schools and universities--should encourage profs and teachers to try new things--even if it sometimes making mistakes. If every experiment has to be a success, it really isn't an experiment. There's no growth. No border is being pushed. Taking risks, trying something new, experimenting, should not be considered irresponsible but, the opposite, the most important way of modeling for one's students how one learns in an atmosphere where outcomes are uncertain, changing, or indeterminate.
- After the experiment, everyone--students, teachers, administrators--needs time to reflect on the process, on what worked, what didn't, what could be improved. And what to try next. This is the important phase of "meta-cognition"--thinking about how we think--that is the basis for all meaningful learning. It is only in this reflection back upon what and how we learned that we give our selves the tools to learn in the next situation, go learn from mistakes, to build upon what we and others are all learning together.
In "American Literature, American Learning," we will use every class period to come up with ways to push and expand our own growth mindset as professors and teachers, precisely so that we can help to encourage that kind of growth, agency, and activism in our students. And we will make our ideas, our experiments, our progress, and, yes, even our mistakes public here, on this HASTAC group. Everybody learns from everybody learning.
And we will love your suggestions too.
Here's a great article that makes all of these points and sends you to a number of key resources that will help you on the way to "Developing a Growth Mindset in Teachers and Staff"