Do Students Have a Fixed Mindset about the Growth Mindset?

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Like lots of teachers these days, I insist that my students watch a video in which Carol Dweck argues for the virtues of a growth mindset. Her basic claim is that those who believe, say, that math or language ability is a natural talent, something you’ve either got or don’t, are less likely to push through obstacles to learning. Though last semester’s students seemed interested, I knew my plan had gone awry when nearly all of them matter of factly claimed to already possess a growth mindset, as if it were a trendy gewgaw they’d acquired ages ago.

Of course, I don’t believe them. If Dweck is even sort of correct, then more than a few of my students implicitly conceive of themselves in intellectually essentialist terms. The majority, for example, routinely describe themselves as “not a math person,” a dead giveaway. But it’s not as if they’re straight up lying either. Claiming a growth mindset seems to function as shorthand for, “I’m willing to work hard in your class, Teacher!” And because the Protestant work ethic — combined with a belief in original sin, I suppose — is so deeply engrained in many, copping to a fixed mindset must feel like confessing to a deep character flaw. Paradoxically, then, plenty of students have a fixed mindset about a growth mindset: you’ve either got it or you don’t, and if you don’t, what a loser you are!

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It surprises me now that I was ever surprised by how students flocked to the growth mindset label. I mean it’s not as if I was asking them to consider a neutral bit of self-knowledge. Rather, it was a request that they demonstrate vulnerability in a new, unfamiliar environment. My aim had been to set the scene for greater thoughtfulness about education at the outset of the semester. Adrienne Rich’s “Claiming an Education” and a Michelle Obama speech were also on the menu, both of which beautifully flesh out connections between education, personal transformation, and social justice.

Before they slipped into their usual student groove, I wanted to urge deeper thinking about their own power and responsibility for learning. When they came up against a challenging reading or essay question, I hoped to inspire confidence that they could power through to success. But much of the transformative potential of the growth mindset framework is based on learners’ willingness and capacity to see themselves as empowered agents and, of course, some are reluctant. Many of my students, for example, come from underprepared groups in which admitting weakness has probably not been rewarded. Some have, quite understandably, learned that their job is to fake it til they make it.

Keeping this in mind helps me think through my new plan for introducing Dweck’s mindset material. When classes start this week, I think I’ll try to openly self-reflect about the learner I’ve been over the years, to share that, like most academics, I implicitly identified as a “smart one” and so, as Dweck describes, quickly abandoned paths that challenged that self-perception. With some embarrassment, I recall dropping classes in art and astronomy when I didn’t quickly do as well as a “talented person” should. Perhaps modeling honest self-reflection will embolden my students do likewise.

But I also know that such frankness may be interpreted as an admission of incompetence. Like many women academics, I’ve been well steeped in the lesson that I must prove myself as exceptional, and students learn to see women teachers in such terms as well. Now, as a women’s studies professor, I sometimes feel it’s my task to vindicate my entire discipline! Yes, we are intellectually capable and, yes, these are real college courses.

Still, maybe being caught in these double binds of expectation and insecurity can help me better appreciate the complicated motives of and pressures on my students. I can better see, perhaps, that asking them to ruthlessly scrutinize their own intellectual strategies and histories is a big deal. Though it is regarded almost as a law of nature in white bourgeois spiritual circles that vulnerability is a strength — thanks Brené Brown! — it is not so evidently true anywhere else.

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