October 5, 2015

Choosing better education and a growth mindset

Recently I criticized an article by Alfie Kohn in which he criticized Carol Dweck. Whether Kohn does not understand the growth mindset well, and is not well informed about mindset research, or deliberately misleads, I don't know. But what he says, isn't true. I want to focus on one of his criticisms because it contains an especially misleading thought. Kohn suggests that promoting a growth mindset implicitly sends the message to just accept and adjust to the conditions we encounter instead of changing them. I'll explain why this is not true.

The difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset is most salient when individuals find themselves in situations in which they are confronted with things they find difficult. When students do things at which they are already capable, any differences between fixed mindsets and growth mindsets will hardly be recognizable, if at all. Only when new and difficult material is presented will the difference become visible. That is when mindset becomes essential. Students with a fixed mindset will tend to become more fearful and will tend to avoid challenges. Students with a growth mindset will become more active and realize that they will have to do their best to master this difficult material.

What Kohn is right about is that the mindset literature sees an important key in the way of thinking and behaving of individual students in mastering difficult challenges. But Kohn must have misunderstood what a growth mindset is. A growth mindset does not say that we must uncritically accept any difficulty that comes our way. What I pointed out in my article is that promoting a growth mindset does not in any way prevent you from concurrently investing in improving education programs. On the contrary, improving education benefits from a growth mindset and to a certain degree requires it.

But more importantly, no matter how good your educational system becomes, the principle of the growth mindset remains crucial. Even in an organizational setting which is near perfect (try to image that) effective learning will require dealing effectively with topics you find difficult. Even in this heavenly school context a fixed mindset will remain a disadvantage and a growth mindset an asset.

Kohn presents a false choice: between a good education system and a growth mindset. Evidently, we have to choose both.

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