Friday, November 15, 2013

A question of mindsets

I'm currently reading Mindset, by Carol Dweck. It's a book that I've been meaning to read for quite some time now, having heard much about the ideas in workshops and from other colleagues. Our Middle and High School Head asked her faculty to read it as part of their professional reading this year and I was able to get my hands on a spare copy.

The general idea is fairly straightforward. There are two mindsets (the view or attitude that someone adopts) about oursleves: the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. Fixed mindset people believe that you are born with a specific amount of talent and ability for something and that no matter how hard you work you won't be able to really change this level. They believe that 'abilities are carved in stone' (pg. 6). Fixed mindset people constantly feel as though they have to prove themselves. This is because if they can't appear clever and smart then the only alternative is that they appear dumb, seeing as they can't do anything about their current ability levels. Therefore, they generally choose tasks that are just difficult enough for them.

Those who hold a growth mindset believe that you are born with a specific level of talent and ability for something but this can be altered by practising and honing your skills, knowledge and understanding of particular disciplines. They don't believe that your traits are 'simply a hand you're dealt with and have to live with' (pg. 7). Growth minded people believe that a person's qualities can  be cultivated through their efforts and that everyone can change and grow through application and experience.

When I first heard about these two mindsets, and as I began reading the book, I considered myself to be firmly in the 'growth' party. I definitely believe that I can improve myself by working harder and thrive on challenges to my thinking and abilities in the work that I do. This is also recognisable in the people that I choose to associate closely with. My wife is an amazing woman. But I'm not attracted to her purely for her gorgeous looks, fabulous singing voice and sense of humour. She is someone (probably more than anyone else) that sees my faults and helps me to work on them, challenges me to be a better person and encourages me to learn new things. She doesn't undermine my self-esteem but she does foster my self-development. I also thrive on learning opportunities. This weekend we have an EAL expert coming to our school to run a workshop on EAL learning styles and to give us some ideas and techniques about how to teach EAL students. Some of our teachers are upset that they have to give up their weekend. Sure, this is an inconvenience for all of us. But Dr. Rojas has a busy schedule and cannot come at any other time. Even though it is on the weekend, this is still a great opportunity to learn and improve our skills, knowledge and understanding of teaching EAL students - and our entire student body are EAL (save a handful of students). These are all attributes of someone who has a growth mindset. I will say though, that I don't always adopt this stance. If I'm confronted with difficulties in things that I'm not passionate about then I'm far less inclined the put the effort in to improve, especially if my starting point is fairly low. Anyone who has seen me dance would agree with this.

I'm only part-way through the book, however, and I'm starting to discover some interesting elements to the mindsets. Perhaps I'm not as growth oriented as I first thought. Apart from choosing particular tasks that allow them to prove themselves to their peers, fixed mindsetters also regularly ask themsleves evaluative questions such as: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser? They feel smart when something comes easily for them (and others struggle with it), when they finish something and its perfect, and when they don't make any mistakes (pg. 24). I can admit to asking myself these questions and I definitely feel the same way about some of the answers above that have come from people with a fixed mindset. Does this mean that I'm not a growth-minded person after all? Probably not. The fact that I'm even asking myself these questions indicates that I don't believe that someone is born one way.

Carol's message is at the beginning of the book is that 'everyone has the ability to change their mindset'. My current stage of understanding is that I appear to be on some sort of mindset continuum. I would predict that I'm more towards the growth end of the spectrum, and I don't feel like there's a clear cut position of being totally in one or the other (for me at least). I do feel smart when I can do things that others have difficulty with. But I also believe that this is a result of the hard work that I've put in over many years - it hasn't just happened. I also don't feel that because I can do something well that it doesn't mean that I can't still improve at it.

So this all points to me having more of a growth mindset than a fixed one. I am curious to find out more about the intricacies of each mindset and I wonder if, as my understanding of each continues to develop, my idea of where I place on the mindset continuum will change?

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