More Thoughts About Learning

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Last week I shared some information and ideas related to teaching and learning. Specifically, I shared the highlights from a recent conference that focused on ways to both model and help students to become active learners. When I read the summary of the conference, there were numerous references to Dr. Carol Dweck and her research. I had certainly heard of Dr. Dweck and previously read some articles that referenced her work, but over the past week I took the opportunity to read more about her research and her theories. I found it interesting and hope you will as well.

Carol Dweck currently serves as a Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. She previously taught at Columbia and Harvard. Her research focuses on learning as it applies to how people succeed and how they can be helped to be successful. She has been conducting research for decades and the limited space in this blog precludes a thorough summary or her work. But one of her most interesting theories is her understanding of “mindsets.”

Dweck’s research suggests that there are two mindsets … fixed and growth. In a fixed mindset, a person believes that “basic qualities, like intelligence and talent, are simply fixed traits.” With this mindset, a person tends to focus on “documenting” his/her talent or intelligence instead of “developing” them. With this mindset, a person believes that success is achieved without effort, but due to individual talent. Dweck’s research over the years would strongly suggest that this view is incorrect.

In a growth mindset, intelligence and talent are important, but there is a belief that “dedication and hard work” can bring development. This mindset is typically associated with a love of learning and a “resilience” which are significant correlates with success and accomplishment.

Dweck defines mindsets as beliefs. Your mindset defines what you believe about yourself and how you “think about your intelligence, your talents, your personality.”  With a fixed mindset you believe that these are givens and your focus is determining the adequacy of these “traits” for personal/professional goals. On the other hand, a person with a growth mindset sees these traits as starting points that can be developed through learning and practice.

Whether you agree or disagree with Dweck’s research, her work serves as a case study for the kind of learning discussed at the UVA conference I wrote about last week. Dweck’s research began with a series of questions and not simply with answers. Dweck was interested in trying to better understand:

-       “Why brains and talent don’t bring success”

-       “How they can stand in the way of it”

-       “Why praising brains and talent doesn’t foster self-esteem and accomplishment, but jeopardizes them”

-       “How teaching a simple idea about the brain raises grades and productivity”

Her research includes a good deal of study and analysis of “great people” from all professions and walks of life. Her theories grew out of her understanding of how they achieved greatness and the personal development that led to their achievement.

It seems to me that the responsibility … the very essence … of teaching is to help students to understand and adopt the growth mindset.   When they say, “I don’t know,” the response is not to provide the answer quickly, but rather to help them to develop and learn.

In one of her books, Dweck describes her motivation for this area of study with these words, “I have always been deeply moved by outstanding achievement and saddened by wasted potential.”   What a great description of the challenge of educating college students!

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)


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Guest Wednesday, 23 July 2014