Monday, February 25, 2013

Reflections on Mindset

In re-reading Carol Dweck's book, Mindset, I find myself thinking of how lucky I am to have been raised in a growth-mindset house. The first time I read her book I got through the first chapter and called my mother to thank her. Everything Dweck was saying rang true because it was how I was raised.

We had a family friend we'll call Dave. Dave was brilliant, my brothers and I were always told. My mother always spoke of Dave in a hushed, reverent tone- he was absolutely, positively brilliant. One of the smartest people we'll ever meet. Nothing was ever hard for Dave. Growing up everything had been easy for him. This was his greatest downfall. He never learned to work hard at anything, never learned how to study or what to do when he failed. Poor Dave was just too smart. Whenever I was frustrated with how difficult math was, or a low grade I got on a test, my mother would bring up Poor Dave.

"You know", she'd point out, "Poor Dave got 100's on all of his tests. But look at him now- he hates his job. He doesn't know how to work hard to change his job, so instead he does the same thing over and over again. He's scared to try hard and fail so he just stays where he is. He doesn't take risks. School was easy for him but he never got to learn what you're learning right now- he never learned how to work hard or how to try. Aren't you lucky", my mom would say, "you will grow up knowing how to work hard and you won't be scared to take risks."

Poor Dave, I grew up thinking. Poor Dave never had a chance to fail.

Looking back I am pretty sure that my mother made up half of the Poor Dave stories. But it worked. (That being said what I also took away from the Poor Dave stories was that Dave was smart, meaning that I was not. Smart people don't have to try, but since I had to try, I was not smart. This was OK because it meant that I was learning skills smart people didn't have. SO, I can't say I totally left childhood with a growth mindset. I had a "aren't you lucky you have to have a growth mindset" mindset. If I was smart I would have been in the "fixed" mindset category. I know, the more you think about it the more backwards it becomes...)

Regardless of how I felt about my own intelligence  I always knew that working hard and trying were essential life skills thanks to the Poor Dave stories. When I laminated about why I had to take calculus and wondered when I'd ever use it anyway, my mother would say that I wasn't actually learning math- I was learning how to think. In the process of learning math I was stretching my brain, which was far more beneficial than the actual math itself. It worked. I no longer did my homework for the purpose of trying to get a good grade, instead I was trying to stretch my brain.

In fact, some times I think I took the growth mindset to the extreme. Once something was easy for me or if I was good at it I stopped doing it- what is the purpose of doing something easy? If I'm good at it then what's the value? What am I getting out of it? I played the violin throughout high school even though I am essentially tone deaf. I ran cross country and distance track- both sports that you can only be successful in if you embrace perseverance. I selected a college that I knew would be hard for me- not just academically but would put me out of my comfort zone socially as well. Even in my career I find myself looking to move on once things get to be routine. I'm always looking for ways to make my job more challenging. I remember my last year as a general education teacher complaining that I just wasn't learning anything. Whether or not this is a good thing is up for debate, but it is who I am.

I think about how my mom's cautionary Poor-Dave tales impact the way I still view the world today and I hope I can do that for my daughter (although I will hopefully be alert to the smart/ not smart message I somehow took away from it). I'll have to find some other friend and make up my own Poor Dave stories.

Failure is important. Regardless of whether or not my mom made up Poor Dave stories, it was true. What a shame it would be to get to adulthood without knowing that you can better yourself with effort, that it is OK to take risks, and that failure is simply a stepping stone.

Put in, take out. Hard at work. 
In the age of standardized test scores it seems to be becoming harder and harder to communicate the importance of failure to our students. As a society we seem to be slowly slipping away from appreciating failure. The college students suing over bad grades? High schools that will not allow students to get an F? When did failure become the end instead of the beginning?

1 comment:

turtlemama said...

Of the top students in my graduating high school class, there were at least a half dozen who were like Family Friend Dave. Never studied, easily missed class, aced every test and assignment. I soooo envied them. After a few years at college, though, without exception, none of them were doing that well. Still with admirable GPA's by anyone's standard, but they were floundering. They never learned how to study, accept a challenge, or take responsibility for when things didn't go as planned. They were very unhappy people and maybe still are. I lost track of some of them, but the few that I kept in touch with for a bit after college were not successful with beginning careers. I can think of two who couldn't (or wouldn't) get jobs, both of whom would have been declared brilliant. Learning to work is by far the more admirable trait to have. Not always flashy, but always in demand.