Growth mindset revisited

The benefits of having a growth mindset are well-known. But it is often confused with effort alone. A growth mindset links specific efforts to positive growth outcomes.

Stanford researcher Carol Dweck has gotten a lot of air time in the Suzuki community because of her research on the malleability of intelligence. Briefly stated, her research shows that how kids see themselves has affects their academic performance. Kids who perceive that they can improve their intelligence by working hard end up doing better than those who believe that intelligence is a fixed asset. No wonder that the Suzuki community embraced her research because it is closely mirrors Suzuki’s empirical experience.

But, in a recent article Dweck draws attention to the ways in which educators have misunderstood her work. In particular, she is concerned about the misconceived idea that effort alone is sufficient to promote achievement through the development of a growth mindset.

“A growth mindset isn’t just about effort. Perhaps the most common misconception is simply equating the growth mindset with effort. Certainly, effort is key for students’ achievement, but it’s not the only thing. Students need to try new strategies and seek input from others when they’re stuck. They need this repertoire of approaches—not just sheer effort—to learn and improve.”

The result of equating effort alone with a growth mindset is similar to that of participation medals for community soccer. It can be a misguided attempt to improve self-esteem through faux egalitarianism.

I think of the growth mindset as a way of understanding cause-and-effect relationships in achieving certain desired outcomes. The old paradigm, both in academics and in music education was, in effect: “You’re genetic material determines your ability.” Suzuki’s experience and Dweck’s research show that this is not true; but simply praising effort is not enough. The key is to help kids understand how focused effort leads to improvement. It’s not just trying.

Several years ago I was involved in a project using a mobile phone application to help adolescents and adults with anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder learn to manage their symptoms. One of the key strategies we employed was to point out the ways in which gradually progressive effort at facing their fears resulted in lower anxiety levels. By presenting them with small challenges that grew in intensity over time and showing them the results of their directed work, they were able to reduce their symptoms.

This strategy is closer to what Dweck is describing than simply praising effort. It’s about instilling a perspective on learning that stresses the ways that the brains of kids (and adults) can be strengthened by hard work. And it’s a paradigm that has both prospective and retrospective components.

  • Prospective growth mindset: “By practicing this section on the piece every day, your ability to play will develop develop beautifully.”
  • Retrospective growth mindset: “During the last week, you worked hard on achieving a more even rhythm in this section by practicing it slowly, playing it with the metronome, and using different rhythmic variations. See how much that improved your playing?”

By drawing attention not only to effort, but the tactics that the child employed to achieve the result, her understanding of cause-and-effect is strengthened in a way that makes it more likely for her to try it again the next time she encounters a similar difficulty. That’s the growth mindset.

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Alan is the main practice partner and accompanist for a young violinist.