Do Schools Create Non-Learners?

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I am taking a little of my own advice today, and rereading Carol Dweck’s 2006 book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

I am still working through the first chapters, but I have already found a number of connections to other work.

The most interesting new learning for me comes from exploring the symptoms of a “fixed mindset”.

IMG_6397We have been so focused on the “growth mindset”, that I have not taken time to really consider what a fixed mindset looks like.

What systems and structures encourage a fixed mindset?

A fixed mindset means that you believe that your talents, abilities and intelligence are what they are.  You also believe that the talents, abilities and intelligence of others is fixed and won’t change.

The new learning for me is the idea that if this is your belief, you need to prove over and over again that you are smart and talented.

 You can’t let the world see that you might not be smart and talented and able.

“Believing that your qualities are carved in stone – the fixed mindset – creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over.  If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character – well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them.  It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics.”

Dweck, Mindset (2006) p. 6

When young children enter school, they arrive as learners.  Does the evaluative nature of the classroom encourage a fixed mindset?

Do our students become afraid to show they don’t know something?

Do they become afraid of challenges, and of learning opportunities where they might fail the first time?

Do they begin to ask, “Will I succeed or fail?  Will I look smart of dumb?  What will people think of me?”  These questions are related to having a fixed mindset about your abilities.  (Dweck, p.6)

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Image shared by Bill Ferriter

Does the structure of school create an environment for the entrenchment of fixed mindsets?

Do students begin to choose only those experiences where they will succeed?  Do they believe that “kids who are smart don’t do mistakes”? (Dweck, p.16)

Do our “very best students”, those who learn to play school well, get high marks, and “succeed” leave school with the most fixed mindsets of all – needing to prove themselves over and over and over again?

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This thinking links to two other ideas I have been exploring recently.

First, Seth Godin’s piece on the meaning of empathy.

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See Seth Godin’s blog here: http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2015/08/empathy.html

Empathy is about wondering why people do what they do.

When we dismiss the actions of others as being the result of their unchangeable characteristics, instead of approaching the behaviour of others with curiosity and wonder, we are displaying the symptoms of a fixed mindset.

If we have a fixed mindset, then we know why people do what they do, because they only have so much intelligence, their personality is “this”, and their abilities are “that”, so obviously the outcome is “this”.

In an environment that promotes a fixed mindset, is it difficult for empathy to flourish?

Do our students who have learned to play school have a difficult time having empathy for others as they develop the belief that abilities are fixed?

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Secondly, when Stephen Katz wonders why the implementation of strategies among educators is challenging, he often brings up the example of how “assessment for and as learning” is a known positive factor in student learning, yet it is not a strategy that has received strong uptake.

When we look closer at it, we see that assessment for learning and assessment as learning are strategies for a growth mindset that believes all people can learn.

Assessment OF learning, in isolation, is a breeding ground for fixed mindset thinking, where intelligence, or being smart, must be proven over and over in an evaluative environment.

Robert Sternberg (on p. 5 of Mindset) is quoted as saying that a major factor in whether people achieve expertise is not fixed prior ability, but purposeful engagement.  If we really believe that, then assessment for and as learning would be a no-brainer, because learning would be a priority, not marks and evaluation.

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Does a pervasive fixed mindset also seep into our professional lives? Are educators afraid to make their thinking visible through blogging because “they might look stupid” and they might “reveal that there are things they don’t know”?

When we think about promotions at the school and system level, does a fixed mindset enter into this process as well?  Do we put our colleagues into neat little categories based on past mistakes?  Do we forget that their abilities and talents can change?

Perhaps, if me must put people into categories, the most useful categories are learners vs. non-learners.  Learners embrace feedback, thrive on challenge, and work to get better.

Isn’t this what educators should be modelling?

Resources:

Building Professional Learning Structures (Stephen Katz)

The Right Mindset for Success (HBR Ideacast podcast interview with Carol Dweck)

Growth Mindset – So in Fashion (Stepan Pruchnicky’s blog)

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2 thoughts on “Do Schools Create Non-Learners?”

  1. Hi Donna,
    You ask some really tough and really important questions for school and District leaders to consider. I definitely think that the fixed mindset seeps into our professional lives and that we need to be mindful of this. This summer, I took a course and found it extremely difficult; it was a Research Methods course and it was all about interpreting statistics. I’ve been reflecting on my fixed-mindset when it comes to mathematics over the course of this year, but it went beyond that in this course for me. I blogged about the experience in a post called, Now I know how it feels (because my blog is a learning journal for me), but I did not share the link on Twitter (as I always do), because I was afraid of people not thinking I was “smart and able”…I’m sure this is true for many leaders. It really got me thinking about the classroom and how the kids feel in a way that I had never really considered before. We can put up all of the sentence stems for speaking with a growth mindset that we want, but it isn’t until we recognize the fixed mindset in ourselves that we will be able to embody empathy as you suggest. Likewise, I appreciate your reminder that when we need to evaluate our attitudes towards colleagues and the teachers with whom we work and ensure that we acknowledge their potential; especially as we embark upon a brand new school year. Thanks for a very thought-provoking post and useful links!

    Like

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