I visited a friend from the gifted education community recently. She hosted me and my son at her home, and she and I went for a long walk and got to chat non-stop. What a treat! Not a single interruption.
One of the things we talked about was Carol Dweck’s Mindset research. Dweck is a psychologist who ran experiments to find out whether people’s mindsets influence how well they learn. Probably not surprisingly, she found that people who believe that they can improve tend to learn better than people who believe that their abilities are fixed. She called this a “growth mindset” vs. a “fixed mindset.” (If you want more details, visit her website here.)
I say this isn’t surprising because it’s something parents have been saying for many years: If you go into a task expecting to fail, you probably won’t do as well as you could. But it’s great that Dweck was able to devise experiments that showed this effect in action.
However… the big “however” was what my friend and I discussed. People in general have a tendency to take limited studies and over-apply them. Reading Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food recently, I was reminded of the time in the 80’s when oat bran was said to be the cure for everything, to the point that a friend of mine would sprinkle it on her Chinese takeout.
Mindset as oat bran
The psychological equivalent of sprinkling oat bran on Chinese takeout is the idea, being adopted by many an educator and plenty of parents these days, that kids can learn anything if they just try hard enough. As soon as you hear someone say that, make sure to put on your Dweckian brakes and remember the limitations of research.
Dweck’s research did not prove that anyone can learn anything if they try hard enough. Her research did suggest that people learn more easily and quickly when they have a positive mindset.
Other research, however, has shown that, in fact, having a mindlessly positive viewpoint is not only not helpful to learning, but can sometimes be detrimental to learning. The New York Times’ “The Trouble with Self-Esteem” offers some details on this.
Why is this important? First of all, it’s important to realize that all of us are born with a physical body that has its limits. When I was young, I wanted to be a marathon runner. That didn’t happen, not because I didn’t try hard enough, but because it turned out that my body isn’t built for marathon running.
The brain is, let’s face it, a piece of meat. We can improve our brains by using them, just as we improve our muscles by using them. But we are all born with limited potential. If we weren’t, we’d be gods. On top of that, some of us are born with brains built for marathons, and others with brains that are happiest taking an evening stroll.
Don’t expect a stroller to win the 100 meter sprint
When you tell children who are working really, really hard on something that challenges the capacity of their brains to the highest that they will succeed if they try hard enough, the message is pretty clear: If you don’t succeed at learning algebra/salsa dancing/Chinese, it’s your fault.
This, of course, is nonsense. Anyone who has raised or worked with gifted children will have plenty of experience in how nonsensical mindless positivity is. There are people in this world who have potential to do things that the rest of us can’t do. If you don’t have a certain kind of brain that “gets” abstract mathematical reasoning, and someone tells you that you can become a leading theoretical physicist if you just try hard enough, they’re lying. Or deluded.
Pushing mindless positivity inhibits learning
- Children do not learn to have reasonable expectations of themselves. They learn that there’s something wrong with them for having potential in some areas and not much potential in other areas, when in fact that’s the definition of being human.
- Educators come to believe that it’s not worth challenging gifted learners, because obviously, they are already challenging themselves enough. The message is that all brains are the same; therefore, all education should be the same. Gifted learners end up bored, frustrated, and confused when people think they worked hard on something that came easily to them.
- Parents teach their kids that everything they do is great, so they don’t have to work to the point of frustration. But working to frustration is the way that most people succeed at what they do. Ask anyone who’s successful at pretty much any enterprise, and they will tell you about the time they “hit the wall” and what it taught them. You only hit the wall if you keep pushing. And you only keep pushing if you believe that you haven’t yet done your best.
So what’s a parent or teacher to do? Dweck says that we should tell kids that they can improve if they work on something, but some kids will clearly be able to do more than others.
Don’t turn Dweck’s research into positivity religion
The answer is one that good sports coaches have known forever. If you’re coaching a typical student team, you’re going to have great players, mediocre players, and let’s face it, really crappy players. Good coaches accept this reality and know that a team is only as good as it can be if all the players try their best.
When I was on my high school track team, there was no nonsense about “you all can be the best runner in the world if you try hard enough.” My coaches were really specific for each runner’s situation. In my case, no matter what race I was running I tended to start out slowly and speed up the longer I ran. My coaches pointed that out and suggested that I needed to push harder in warm-ups so that I was ready to go from the outset.
No one else on my team had that particular pattern, and no one else on my team got that advice.
In academics, we don’t have to tell all kids they can be—or should be—theoretical physicists. But we should tell them that their outlook will affect their performance. And we should tell them that no matter how well they perform at one specific academic task, they’re an important part of the team.
We don’t all have to be stars
Frankly, I don’t care much whether my mechanic is good at theoretical physics, whether my doctor is good at basketball, or whether my child’s music teacher passed high school chemistry.
I do want them to have a positive mindset, so they can strive to be the best they can be at their jobs. But mindless positivity just leads to mediocrity and complacence.