Thursday, 15 June 2017

Meeting Carol Dweck (2017 Term 2 Week 8)

Last week at the Edutech conference, I had the opportunity to meet and to interview Professor Carol Dweck, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. Whereas most professors of psychology are known only within the academic context, Professor Dweck has become known around the world for her research that first reached the public sphere through the best-selling text Mindset. 

Her core thesis, which is unpacked here, is that we have underlying beliefs regarding our intelligence and abilities. The fixed mindset holds that these capacities are largely predetermined; either you have it or you don't. The growth mindset sees our intelligence and abilities as malleable and able to be improved. The second of these mindsets is correlated with a willingness to embrace challenge, a thirst for new learning, and any other number of positive outcomes. 

I have written about the growth mindset previously, and we have worked hard to embed the growth mindset thinking across the school. In addition to training the staff to model and to encourage the growth mindset, students are explicitly taught about the growth mindset in the Year 7 Learning Foundations course.

It was a great honour to meet Professor Dweck and have the chance to interview her. In the course of our discussions, there were three nuances to her work that emerged that I found fascinating.

The first point is that each of us internalises a mixture of the fixed and the growth mindset. Although the paradigm is binary, the reality is that our thinking is mixed. In different domains of knowledge, in different areas of ability, at different times and in different contexts, we may shift between a fixed and a growth mindset. Anyone who has said 'I'm not musical' or 'I don't have a maths brain', is articulating a fixed mindset. It would be more accurate to say 'I have not learned how to sing, yet.' Or 'I find maths particularly challenging.'

The second point that Professor Dweck made is that there are a number of situations that are likely to trigger us back to the fixed mindset. These situations include struggling, especially when others look as though they are coping, and set-backs, when we experience failure despite our efforts. Our temptation with these triggers is to believe 'I haven't got what it takes.' I was particularly struck by her observation that 'stretch' situations can be triggers for us; when outside our comfort zones, we can often feel that we are imposters. Reflecting on the idea of 'triggers', I wonder whether formal school reports can function as triggers to the fixed mindset for our students. 

The third point was the way that our increasing understanding of the neuroplasticity of the brain supports the psychological framework of fixed vs growth mindsets. The brain has the capacity to grow and build capability, which it does through learning through new things. There is a biological basis to the observable experience.

If there was one thing that Professor Dweck said that continued to resonate with me, it was the observation that there is a disjunction between talk and walk for many teachers and parents who profess an allegiance to the growth mindset. Although we may assent to the general proposition, the throwaway comments, our own personal responses to trigger situations, and other elements of day to day interaction, can fuel the fixed mindset in our children.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Intellectual character development (2017 Term 2 Week 7)

Sometimes, when I consider what tremendous consequences come from little things,  ..I am tempted to think ... that there are no little things.

The quote is from Bruce Barton, as cited in Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. His point has to do with character formation. The little things are the things that shape us. 

The same point is made in the difficult-to-attribute proverb that the students at Inaburra have heard from me time and time again: 
We sow a thought and reap an act;
We sow an act and reap a habit;
We sow a habit and reap a character;
We sow a character and reap a destiny

The Bible has the same dynamic in mind in Philippians 4:8, which reads: 
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things. 

I read a fascinating book recently by Philip E. Dow, titled Virtuous Minds: Intellectual Character Development. He argues that schools should be equally concerned for both the formation of moral character and the formation of intellectual character. 

The first element seems obvious; as I speak with parents in enrolment interviews, many of them are very clear that the formation of their child's moral character is important to them. We all want our children to be honest, to be trustworthy, to be kind and to be self-disciplined. Schools like Inaburra are unhesitating in affirming our desire to cultivate moral virtue in our students.

However, it was his articulation of the second element that captured my attention. Dow describes intellectual character as "the force of accumulated thinking habits that shape and colour every decision that we make." Rather than life consisting of a series of unconnected isolated moments of decision, most of the choices that we make are not the result of conscious and deliberate reasoning, but mental autopilot. We rely on mental ruts that have been long engrained in us through habits; these become our intellectual character. Dow argues that both the way that we think, and the stuff that we think about, will determine the kind of person that we will become.

He goes on to identify seven intellectual character traits that we need to function in the ever more volatile, unpredictable and changing world. His case is that, far more than any particular knowledge or skills outcomes, these habitual intellectual characteristics are crucial. His list is:

  • courage
  • tenacity
  • carefulness
  • curiousity
  • fair-mindedness
  • honesty
  • humility
There is a challenge here for us as parents and as educators. What are those small thoughts and actions that are shaping the intellectual character of our children? What little decisions are adding up to be cumulatively transformative over time? How do we encourage the virtue and discourage the vice, without just adding more elements to our nagging repertoire? 

Of course, recognising the powerful effect of our role-modelling, we would do well to ask some searching questions of ourselves first! 

I commend Dow's book to you.