The Growth Mindset and Trophies for All

The Growth Mindset and Trophies for All


Genius is not enough; we need to get the job done.
― Carol S. Dweck


Dr. Vince Bertram, BRV grad and state school board member, came to our school last month and told our students that it’s not enough to say that you should follow your dreams - or that dreams come true - but rather to “dream differently.”  At the heart of it he told our students to do their homework on what talent and skills that the future will value, find those things that have value and that they like to do...and then go and do those things. To presume that you can, not that you cannot.  He told our students his story, and then told them how to have their own. Don’t just follow dreams - Make things happen.


It was a message that nobody lives a life which has a predetermined path. But you must control your journey, or you will have no more control over it than if it were predetermined, or even random. And as educators, we notice that many students who do not succeed often enter into a task with the outcome of “failure” already fixed in their own minds, which then leads barriers for many of them to even attempt a new task or learn something new. And other students are relentless in attaining mastery in almost every task.
Carol Dweck, at Stanford University, is the person behind the concepts of “Mindset” - Mindset: The New Psychology of Success - which about 10 years old but still shows up in a lot of educational literature. She proposes two dichotomous mindsets: the fixed mindset and the growth mindset


Dweck shows that students who fail frequently already believe that they will fail, so they don’t attempt many tasks with rigor and they fail at them - frequently. Most have already decided that this cycle is just the “way they are” - the outcomes are ‘fixed” and therefore they are destined to fail and have no control over most of their life and choices. That their talents were predetermined and can not change. This is the fixed mindset. It is the barrier between moving from simplicity to complexity.


But most students who are successful believe that talent, knowledge and skill can be learned, improved, and mastered, and that they have the ability to do new things and learn and improve their life and have the freedom to make choices. They can choose to do the hard work to adapt. This is the growth mindset.  Many of these students even become fixated upon acquiring mastery.

IQ and Mindset


To be honest, most research indicates that IQ actually is basically “fixed” and does not change over a person’s lifetime - the data still tends to confirm that. But studies in brain plasticity demonstrate that there are things we can do to make growing brains learn more effectively: Repetition, connection, reinforcement, context, relevance and repetition. (yes I did that on purpose).


It matters to have a healthy diet, to get enough sleep, to avoid alcohol, tobacco and drugs and harmful relationships. But being curious, inquisitive, exploratory and adventurous matters a lot, too. It’s all about stimulating neural growth through the school years.


There are parts that are genetic (There is a very high correlation between father’s and children’s IQ, for example) but there are parts that are not - fetal alcohol and drug syndrome, exposure to tobacco, malnutrition, illness, poverty, violence and unhealthy environments can also significantly impact how the brain works.


Can Mindset Change? Focusing on Fluency, Mastery, Endurance and Complexity


In the course of Dr. Dweck’s work she studied how to change a person’s mindset from fixed to growth. One of her conclusions was that the quality of the teacher matters - and that master teachers can influence a change in students from a fixed to a growth mindset. We know that master teachers provide high-quality first-time instruction, with lots of fluency- and mastery-focused feedback, with repetition and correction and most of all: a relationship wherein confidence can grow. And it is mastery of the task that matters -  the research showed that a relationship that is honest works the best - telling a student that she IS (“being”) smart reinforces a fixed mindset. Telling a student that she MASTERED (“doing”) a difficult task reinforces a growth mindset. We live in a “doing” world even though we think it is a “being” world. The more the students do, the more they learn. The more often they do something with fluency, the more they master.


Likewise, nobody grows on a diet of empty affirmation, feeling good, or rote praise. What matters from having a master teacher is that master teachers make students work.  Dweck also strongly believes (as does this corporation…) that no student of any type is totally responsible for their own learning. In some schools it is acceptable for adults to blame a lack of educational rigor, genuine learning and a failure to maintain an orderly learning environment on the circumstances of our students and their parents - specifically at-risk students. Needless to say, these are not master teachers, and did not have genuine relationships with their students. No master teachers ever put the full blame for a lack of learning on the student.  We sometimes just need to teach in exotically different ways.


Credé, Tynan, and Harms (2016) brought mindset all the way back to defining grit as a component of a growth mindset - and that grit is always be appropriate when the task was “difficult but well-defined” but that a “growth mindset may not be needed for easy tasks or those that are “novel” or are “ill-defined.” High performing students need clarity because they need the blueprints for accomplishment. It is a reward in itself. But... not everyone a high-performing student.


Everyone Gets a Trophy


There is another, philosophically opposite, approach to both grit and mindset - one which is driven by the generation-old focus that feelings of personal esteem and self-worth are the most important foundation upon growth and success. Particularly if the student is otherwise unable or unwilling (fixed mindset) to do the work or learn the skill to earn any recognition on merit. This is called the “everyone gets a trophy” approach. The idea is that the major goal of education is to ensure a generated feeling of accomplishment rather than to generate a school-wide culture of genuine accomplishment.


The approach that it is the awarding of the trophy rather than the mastery of the task which builds students into self-sustaining adults. Education is often guilty of this, all of us have seen it. And there are advocates for this approach who believe in it, deeply. If a student is already ill-disposed to put the work into something and knows they will be rewarded nonetheless, there will be no work put in towards mastery. And fluency and mastery is our mission.


Bob Cook, writing for Forbes, comments on the trophy debate: “...there is an all-or-nothing, life-as-a-zero-sum-game mentality in the statement about there's room for only a select few....”  But although sports are, by definition, zero-sum games, they are also rarely all-or-nothing. Second place at the Olympics is a substantial accomplishment. The same applies to learning and growing.


“Winning” anything of value takes grit, it takes courage for our students to access their full talent and their full level of endurance -  to win big things though, they must dream differently.   And to do that requires a growth mindset for them to find their way. Nurture and encourage that mindset with our students.

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