Last summer, the faculty at the Eliot School read a wonderful book titled Mindset by Dr. Carol Dweck. (You may remember me writing about this in blog posts earlier in the year.) This book helped us articulate a long held belief in the power of attitude and effort. Dr. Dweck’s central theme centers around two distinctly different views or mindsets. People with a “fixed mindset” believe that intelligence is inherent or predetermined. You are either smart, or you’re not. While people with a “growth mindset” believe that intelligence, skill and performance are malleable, and highly influenced by effort and using effective strategies. These two different viewpoints play themselves out in many different ways and through a variety of actions.
One of Dr. Dweck’s central messages centers around our response to children when they succeed. If we respond to success by praising skill, intelligence or natural ability, we may unintentionally be setting children up for disappointment when the results are not what they want. For example, when a child gets a good score on a test, a natural response may be to say, “You are so smart.” Or “You are a really good math student.” While these types of comments may feel supportive, they send the message that the test score is a result of something that the child has no control over, an innate ability. The danger in this type of response comes down the road when this child gets a poor score on a test. At this point, the poor score may cause the child to question his/her ability or intelligence. Does the score mean that “I am not that smart?” Research shows that students with a “fixed mindset” are less likely to take risks, gravitate toward challenging tasks and make excuses for the times when their performance is not what they want it to be. Conversely, if our initial response to the first excellent score is, “Wow! That is excellent. All your hard work, studying and extra effort paid off. Good for you!” We are attributing the child’s success to aspects within his/her control and equipping her/him to make changes when things don’t turn out the way they hope. So when a future test result is poor, the child with the “growth mind set” sees failure as a challenge. They attribute the poor score to insufficient effort or poor strategy. This type of response allows them to change course, work harder, come up with a new plan and rise to the challenge, as opposed to questioning their competence. These students tend to accept challenges and enjoy the struggle of a knotty problem.
So, why remind you about Dweck’s work now? This afternoon, your students are receiving their first report card of the year. This provides an excellent opportunity for parents to discuss with their children issues related to school and learning. I encourage you to take this opportunity to talk with your child about their progress, performane, attitude, effort, use of strategies, etc... during the first semester of the year. Thinking about Dweck’s work, you can concentrate your discussion on the fact that determined effort, the use of effective strategies and hard work result in deeper learning and increased progress. You will be emphasizing that students have control over what they achieve. Encouraging, praising and valuing effort will help to inspire a greater effort and increased work ethic by your children. Having a “growth mindset” helps students in all situations, but most importantly when learning gets tough or they experience difficulty. When learning doesn’t come easily (and there will be times in their education when this happens), students with a “growth mindset” bear down, work harder, develop improved strategies and believe that their accomplishments and ability to overcome obstacles lies within themselves and is directly attributable to their effort. Those students are well equipped and empowered to handle the challenges and disappointments that are inevitable. These students are resilient learners who are more willing to take risks, stretch themselves and tackle new challenges. They have a confidence “can do” attitude that allows them to persevere when things don’t go their way the first time. So as you think about how to make the first report card a learning experience for your child, I hope you will praise them for their effort, encourage them to try new strategies, talk to them about setting a specific and challenging goal for the next semester and continue to reward their hard work.
Please don’t hesitate to contact me with any questions or concerns.
**This letter is based on a letter previously written by Mr. David Castelline, Teachers 21.