Category Archives: teaching

what’s your mindset on “mindset”?


[IMAGE CREDIT: Edutopia]

One of the most common refrains I’ve heard from my students over the years is, “I’m just not creative.” When I taught high school, I heard and I asked my students to write in any genre beyond the five-paragraph essay (which is indeed a secondary school genre in that very few writers write in it past graduation, even English majors). In fact, if I dared suggest that my students write FOUR or FIVE+ paragraphs, oh the gasps that ensued! Oh the wringing of hands!

As determined as I was as a teacher to coax students out of their fixed mindsets as writers so that they could grow creatively, I have a confession to make: when I’m asked to move beyond a fixed mindset as a writer, I feel aghast sometimes, too.

I’ve been earning part of my living as a writer for “five-ever,” as my daughter would say, and though I definitely have my dark days, I’m pretty confident in claiming that identity once-and-for-all. In that respect, I’d say I have “fixed mindset” that yes, indeed, I am a writer. So that’s where my quibble with Dweck’s thinking about mindsets in dichotomous terms comes in. Rather, I see fixed and growth mindsets as related in potentially positive way.

When a fixed mindset is tied to an actionable identity, I believe it can be generative. That is, actually seeing myself as a writer is what propels me to engage in and grow through writing.

At the same time, when I dabble in varied genres and write for audiences beyond academia, I inevitably have to activate a growth mindset. I have to start over in a sense, but I can always come back to that anchor identity, that fixed mindset that I am a writer, just one who’s always stretching and growing. I ‘m not gonna lie, as with my high school students, there’s always some gasping and wringing of hands when I transition into a growth mindset, but it’s the fixed mindset that gets me through said grasping and wringing to the other side.

Thus I don’t see fixed and growth mindsets as either-or’s; I see them in potentially generative tension with one another.

I’m not the only one with a quibble about Dweck’s ideas. See, for instance, Alfie Kohn’s critique about buying the “mindset” mindset hook, line, and sinker, and then take a look at this critique of Kohn’s critique by whip-smart writer/gifted teacher/former student/luminous human being Jaime Wood. (Jaime’s piece is on a terrific site called Bark, which you’re going to want to start following right now, immediately. Just read this for starters.)

I think Jaime gets it right when she points out that an inordinate focus on the individual, which the notion of “mindset” (understood singularly) implies, ignores that the individual always exists in a sociocultural context of “family, teachers, economics, societal expectations, and a range of other factors beyond ourselves to contribute to our success.” In that case, “the notion that personal responsibility is the only condition that matters for success, or the most important one, is just plain false.”

Jaime’s conclusion: “growth mindset isn’t really the problem. The problem is that we have to understand the complex system in which this new strategy will take place and how other issues like forming positive relationships between students and teachers will have a substantial effect on whether a growth mindset will work.”

What she said.