You grew up in Brooklyn, New York City. What was your primary and secondary education like?
It was very much didactic, teacher to student. It was an era that believed in fixed intelligence. My sixth grade teacher seated us around the room in IQ order. We were already the top IQ class in the grade but she made even finer distinctions. If you didn’t have the highest IQ you weren’t given any responsibilities or accorded respect. I was one of the blessed people but it had an impact on everyone. It created a very fixed mindset atmosphere.
You’re a leading researcher in motivation and development. Why did you choose this area?
I think I was inspired by my sixth grade teacher to figure out ‘why do some people love challenges, thrive on them, roll with the punches, are resilient in the face of setbacks, and other people, just as able, wither, shy away from challenges, don’t want to make mistakes, crumble when they do?’. And I think what happened, and through my education ... was that I felt like I never want to make a mistake. I never want to take a test and do poorly and get demoted from my special place. So I thought ‘I’m going to figure this out. I’m going to try and bottle it and distribute it to kids around the world so that even if you’re in an environment that is labelling you, at least you understand what it’s like to be in a mindset that loves challenge’.
You travel globally as a speaker. At this point, what do you enjoy most about what you do?
Although I love travelling and speaking and seeing what educators are doing with our work, my first love is research and as I travel I see what’s working, what’s not working. How are teachers implementing mindset effectively and how are they not implementing it effectively? Then I feel like ‘Oh I’ve got so much more research to do in order to give teachers and students what they need to thrive’. So it’s never over. It’s always the next question. And at each stage you put out there the best of what you know, the best of what you think will help, and then you learn ‘OK, more is needed’.
What would you say are a few of the biggest myths about growth mindset?
OK, myth No.1 is the myth that it’s all about effort, and that you instil it by praising effort. Effort is one factor that leads to learning. So the ultimate value is growth, progress, learning. And effort is one thing that leads there but there are many other things – strategies, using resources, getting advice, guidance and mentorship, and when people leave that out and just praise effort, it’s not transmitting a growth mindset. Adults have nagged children for centuries to try harder. That’s not a growth mindset, it’s an adult nagging a child to try harder!
Also, we find that when teachers think it’s just about effort and praising effort they may praise effort that isn’t even there, or that’s not effective. So if a child tries hard at something and you say ‘great job, you tried hard’, but they didn’t make progress, they didn’t advance, you’re actually conveying a fixed mindset because you’re saying ‘great effort, I didn’t really expect you to do that, and I don’t expect you to do that, so I’m trying to make you feel good about not doing it’. So we need people to understand that it’s appreciating a variety of process variables that lead to learning.
The second myth is that you can teach students a lesson on growth mindset and put a poster up in the front of the room, and that’s that, that they will have a growth mindset from then on. And we know if the teacher doesn’t then embody a growth mindset, if teachers don’t embody growth mindsets in their teaching practices, in the way that they give feedback when the child is stuck, and the way they present a new unit, in the way that they give opportunities for revision and growth of understanding – if they don’t embody that growth mindset, they are not teaching it. And in fact, if their behaviour contradicts the poster at the front of the room, then maybe they’re doing a disservice.
You’ve mentioned that growth mindset is particularly important for girls in STEM?
Growth mindset seems to be particularly important for any group that’s labouring under a negative stereotype, so girls in some STEM fields, in our country some under-represented minorities who are stereotyped as not being good at STEM. And so a growth mindset is especially important to understand that this is a learned set of skills, not a fixed talent, and that the way they learn anything, they can learn STEM. And really interesting research is now showing that the more a STEM field, or any field for that matter, the more the scholars in a field believe that success requires a fixed talent that can’t be taught, the fewer women and minorities are earning PhDs in that field. So the people in that field must communicate that this is a learned set of skills.
Yeah, you have to work hard and you have to try strategies, you have to go to the review sessions, you’ve got to work with teachers, you’ve got to find students who did well in the course before. It may take a lot, but it’s a learnable set of skills. And one of my former students, Mary Murphy, is actually studying what STEM professors say to students on the first day of class and she’s finding that some of the professors are saying, ‘Half of you will be gone next week and that’s how it should be’, ‘If this isn’t easy for you, you don’t belong here’. And yet many others are saying ‘Everyone in this class can do well. And we will work with you until you do’. So again, it’s especially important to believe it’s a learned set of skills. And, you know, women or under-served minorities can acknowledge that maybe their field has not done as well traditionally, or is not as represented, but there are many reasons for that, that have nothing to do with their potential.
What is the biggest challenge facing 21st century education?
I feel like there are huge challenges on every front. The one I’m most concerned with is the fact that students have to be prepared for a kind of global economy where jobs become obsolete, new jobs come online. They have to be prepared to take on new challenges successively throughout their lives. They have to be prepared to re-train, they have to be prepared for all kinds of things. We don’t even know what they have to be prepared for yet! So I am concerned that our education systems are not preparing for that ... we focus on high stakes testing and teaching to the test, learning for the test, memorising, [but] we know that’s not what the future of work is. So I feel that there is a tremendous mismatch between a lot of our education systems and what the world will require of these kids.
We’re finding in our work that a growth mindset does prepare kids to want challenge more, and we and others are also finding that teaching for understanding makes kids want challenges more, makes them more resilient. So let’s match up that teaching for understanding, that teaching of perseverance, teaching of love of challenge, that’s what’s going to line up with the work world of the future.
As an education leader, I would like to be remembered for... opening people’s minds to the idea that they and the people around them have so much more potential than they think.
Outside of education, the kinds of people I admire are… people who have taken on amazing challenges, and have contributed to the world. I admire people who were told they weren’t good at something and then did it.
Away from work, some things that I like to do to wind down are… first of all, I do have to say I work a lot! But I also love to mix in travel. My husband comes with me on many trips. We love theatre. We love music. We love food.
My most treasured possession… is my husband. he’s tremendously caring and supportive.