March 14, 2015

Have we Uncovered the Holy Grail of Student Success?

amboo hoo?/flickr

Mindsets: The Key to Unlocking Student Success?

I have a voracious appetite for books, research articles, and various other genres of literature. Even so, rarely do I find a book that speaks to me so well that I read it cover-to-cover in one sitting.

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Dr. Carol Dweck, is an excellent read about how individuals’ successes or lack thereof are not determined by genetics, innate ability, or talent; rather, by one of the two types of mindsets that each person could have about him or herself.

According to Dweck, someone with a fixed mindset views him or herself as being unable to change or alter his or her innate potential, ability, talent, or correct shortcomings.

In essence, a person with a fixed mindset is more concerned with how he or she is viewed by others than with improving his or her situation by critical examination of action. The fear of failure paralyzes one with a fixed mindset, and so, he or she avoids taking risks or accepting challenges for fear of being viewed as incompetent or a failure should he or she make a mistake.

In contrast, people with a growth mindset see challenging situations as opportunities to grow and learn.

As a consequence, mistakes or setbacks do not deter them or force them to reexamine their goals or desires. In fact, Dweck’s research on the topic suggests the exact opposite: People with growth mindsets actually work harder and with more determination to accomplish their goals as a result of failures, whereas people with fixed mindsets would most likely give up, attributing their lack of success to a perceived inability or lack of talent.

What’s even more striking is that, empirically, variables such as age, level of education, occupation, upbringing, and a host of others seem to have no effect on the results of the author’s years of study on this topic. People with fixed mindsets will fall short of reaching their goal if they don’t succeed in a task immediately, while those with growth mindsets will view failures and mistakes as opportunities for improvement.

This brings me to my field of education. It is estimated that somewhere in the neighborhood of 60-80 percent of the students around the country need some form of remedial coursework when they get to college. That’s a staggering number of students who haven’t grasped high school level writing and mathematical concepts, yet they still earned a high school diploma.

Admittedly, as an educator, I’ve caught myself at times blaming extraneous circumstances for students’ adverse academic performance; however, I’ve always believed that the issue of student motivation (or lack thereof) toward academics is more convoluted than it appears.

There is a staggering amount of research that supports the notion that students’ home-lives, poverty level, parents’ educational levels, and even how many meals they eat daily can adversely effect their academic performance. Yet still, it appears as though we just accept these shortcomings as facts-of-life that the students simply have to deal with.

Furthermore, our culture thrives on instant gratification, and it seems that every subsequent generation of students has an entitlement mentality more pervasive than the previous one. These variables only exacerbate the problems associated with the fixed mindset, in that success in any endeavor needs to be absolute and setbacks mean absolute failure. The notion that one’s mistakes only offer opportunities for growth and improvement falls on deaf ears to those with a propensity toward instant gratification and entitlement.

Is it possible that Dweck has uncovered a Holy Grail of sorts in terms of cracking the code for improving student achievement?

Should we, as educators, be focusing more on helping students develop a growth mindset toward academics as opposed to simply spewing large quantities of subject matter, all the while expecting students to climb the ladder of Bloom’s Taxonomy without the understanding that failure and mistakes are simply opportunities to improve, overcome challenging situations, and grow as students?

Research data is beginning to suggest that we should be teaching the whole child: affectively, cognitively and academically.

Dweck’s book illustrates how the simple orientation of our minds toward new and challenging tasks can determine whether we succeed or fail, and to what degree. Children are heartily resilient, and I’d be willing to bet that we can drastically improve academic achievement in our schools by simply helping students realize that challenging obstacles, setbacks, and mistakes are acceptable, normal, and according to Dweck, even essential to the process of growing as an individual.

We can change the efficacy of the educational process by simply helping students change their mindsets.



Author: Peter Maggio

Editor: Emily Bartran

Photo: amboo hoo/Flickr


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