Do you believe that some people are born teachers? Many do. They subscribe to one of two basic mindsets described by Stanford professor Carol Dweck in her recent book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success”. She argues that there are two different ways to view reality: some suppose that talent and intelligence are qualities a person is born with (fixed mindset). Others think that talent and success are a result of hard work, effort, and continuous learning (growth mindset).
People who believe their qualities and talents are innate constantly need to prove themselves. Every situation is evaluated in light of how to best project their abilities. Fear of failure haunts them because it could be proof they are not quite as intelligent as they suppose.
Those with a growth mindset don’t need constant success to confirm their self-worth. They handle failure better because they believe that their abilities can improve over time with effort and persistence. They look at challenges as opportunities for personal and professional development.
Dr. Dweck posits that the fixed mindset is one reason that almost 50% of new teachers in the U.S. quit the profession in their first five years. Too many believe that good teachers are born with “the gift”, and that some have it, and some don’t. They have a tendency to get discouraged during their first teaching experiences as they deal with difficult students and those with learning problems.
Using a survey, Dweck found she could easily identify those teachers whose life orientations represent each of the two basic mindsets. She then researched the relationship between a teacher’s mindset and his or her professional attitudes and achievements.
She found that teachers who believed in innate teaching talent (fixed mindset) were more afraid of negative evaluations of their performance, and therefore were reluctant to be observed in class or to collaborate with colleagues to improve their performance. Those with a growth mindset participated in more professional development activities and read more articles and books on educational methods in search of new ideas and teaching strategies. They were more willing to engage in peer observation of other teachers, and tended to confront problems in their classrooms straight on by asking for help from supervisors and colleagues.
Teachers with a growth mindset model the same orientation for their students. They pay close attention to students’ wrong answers as opportunities to understand the thinking behind them and correct confusion. Instead of praising students for their intelligence, they positively reinforce effort and effective problem-solving strategies. They know that positive reinforcement for intelligence can be counterproductive, raising students’ anxiety when their God-given smarts are not quite enough for success in confronting a challenge. They don’t accept excuses like, “I’m no good at math”. Like most people in oriental cultures, they realize that no one was born “good at math”, and that mastery comes through effort and persistence.
Success among students, as among teachers, is attained through disciplined effort coupled with focused learning in order to reach goals. Teachers with a growth mindset know this, and inculcate the same beliefs and attitudes in their students.