In chapter 1 of her book Mindset, Carol Dweck (2006) defines a fixed mindset as “believing that your qualities are carved in stone” (p. 3). As a result, this 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.”
Personally, this fixed mindset dictated much of my life. If I played a sport, I wanted to be the best at it (though I clearly wasn’t the best on the team). If I said something in a group of people, I wanted to make sure it was the most intelligent thing I could contribute. If I spoke in a different language, I wanted to speak perfectly. To risk doing something that I might not be good at was to risk failure, because I had exposed an area that I was not naturally gifted in.
More than anything, this mindset manifested itself academically. If I scored well on a test, then I was smart, and as a result, would receive approval from others. If I didn’t score well, then that area just wasn’t my expertise and I would avoid it. Through this, I learned to play the game of academia; I selected classes and programs that played to my strengths and avoided those that offered too great a risk of failure.
A few years ago, I was introduced to Carol Dweck’s alternative to the fixed mindset. The growth mindset, she describes, “is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts” (p. 4). Rather than believing that you are born with a specific ability, this view emphasizes a capacity to grow in skills and challenges.
It wasn’t until I was sitting in a graduate class that I realized how necessary a growth mindset was for my learning. As the class tackled leadership skills, the professor reminded us: “What do you do when you first learn to ride a bike? You fall off. And what do you do after that? You get back on.” When I received a paper back for the class that had more blue and green ink on it than black, though, my first reaction was to give up. If I didn’t get it the first time, then I probably never would, I told myself. And then I realized how much of a fixed mindset those thoughts showed and how that would never lead to learning.
In the Classroom
Unfortunately, in today’s era of standardized testing and accountability, it’s easy to perpetuate a fixed mindset among our children and students. Teachers, overwhelmed by standards and students, rush to meet teaching criterion while at the same time helping Susie get from her fourth grade reading level up to the necessary seventh grade, or while writing a college recommendation for Jahmal as the first college attendee in his family. With so many responsibilities, few minutes remain for helping students think about learning.
Developing a growth mindset requires reflection and introspection. Amidst so many demands, we make the most of what little time we have. The test gets graded and returned. Students look at the grade, put it away, and hopefully show it to their parents. If they struggled, there is hopefully a chance to relearn the material…but let’s face it, that doesn’t always happen. As a teacher, I put my best effort into it, but didn’t seem to get to far. We would mark an “x” on the growth chart, then forget about them. I would get lost in my unit plans, and my students would get lost in the next football game.
(As an aside, please note that I’m not trying to blame teachers for anything. Really, I’ve been in your shoes, holding that white board marker, staring at the state standards, and grading those tests. I applaud teachers who incorporate authentic assessments and require students to analyze their errors to see them as learning opportunities. The problem that I’m referring to is more of a cultural problem than anything else.)
As classrooms jump from lesson to lesson, it’s crucial for both teachers and students to emphasize a growth mindset. By focusing on skills and qualities instead of grades, the teacher can help the student to shape an image of himself or herself as a learner rather than a status of intelligence.
Of course, many current school systems don’t quite fit into this ideal, particularly when we look at the broader cultures they exist in, outside of education. We’re trained to rank ourselves against those around us with test scores. We tie salaries to being better at something than anyone else. When something breaks, we throw it away and buy a new thing.
That’s not to say that education should turn into a lovey dovey everyone is special system. It is to say that when we focus on skill development and growth, we’re bound to see improvements, not only educationally, but also socially and emotionally. The strategic planning that it takes to build a growth mindset on such a large level is consuming, but the effects can be immeasurable.
In the TCK world, the growth mindset plays an even more critical role.
TCKs transition between environments much more frequently than the average child. This brings a lot more “new” into the TCK’s life, and with that “new,” a huge potential for failure. There will inevitably be mistakes and failures as the TCK deciphers new cultural norms and traditions. Little Johnny will forget to take his shoes off in the Japanese household he entered, or teenage Megan will not unwrap a present just given to her by her American grandparents because it would be rude to do so in Asia.
Each of these experiences brings with it two options: the TCK can respond with a fixed mindset and think that he or she will never blend into this culture. While this may be true on a physical level, giving up so easily will lead to discouragement and isolation. In contrast, focusing on a growth mindset allows the TCK to learn from these experience. He or she will feel the embarrassment of violating a cultural norm, but then integrate into a new understanding of the country.
For TCKs, this can be especially powerful with language acquisition. As a child, I was hesitant to use my Mandarin, for fear of speaking incorrectly. Despite the graciousness of the Taiwanese people we interacted with, I didn’t want to label myself as an ignorant American, so I didn’t try. Had I taken more risks and tried to learn through errors, I would perhaps be more fluent than I am today.
In closing, I think back to one of my teaching colleagues. She would joke with her students that a lack of attention to their studies would result in a “big, fat F-antastic” on their homework. Of course, she meant the F as a failure. But what if we truly started to train ourselves to look at failure as a fantastic opportunity? It’s hard, and it doesn’t feel good, but how much more could we accomplish if we choose to do that?
Dweck, C. (2006) Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House, Inc.