My Fixed Mindset

What does it take for a high school student to go from straight A (and Type A), National Merit finalist, scholarship recipient to a Halo-playing, White Castle-eating slacker with a 2.8 GPA? I've been wondering this for the last, oh, twelve years or so.

Unsurprisingly, I'm not alone in wondering. From Megan McCardle (emphasis mine):

“The kids who race ahead in the readers without much supervision get praised for being smart,” says [Stanford psychologist Carol] Dweck. “What are they learning? They’re learning that being smart is not about overcoming tough challenges. It’s about finding work easy. When they get to college or graduate school and it starts being hard, they don’t necessarily know how to deal with that."

While I may not like to admit it, that certainly describes my experience. I justified my lowered standards by telling myself I was choosing not to work my hardest. That was a copout, of course, but that thinking enabled me to continue to tell myself, "You're smart!" while I was getting a C in Anatomy class.

Dweck identifies people like this (like me), as having a "fixed mindset." I don't want to quote the entire article, but there are so many passages that ring true, I can't help myself. Like this one:

If they’re forced into a challenge they don’t feel prepared for, they may even engage in what psychologists call “self-handicapping”: deliberately doing things that will hamper their performance in order to give themselves an excuse for not doing well...

“Instead of studying,” writes the psychologist Edward Hirt, “a student goes to a movie the night before an exam. If he performs poorly, he can attribute his failure to a lack of studying rather than to a lack of ability or intelligence. On the other hand, if he does well on the exam, he may conclude that he has exceptional ability, because he was able to perform well without studying.”

Well, that explains all the 2 a.m. White Castle trips...

Why do I bring this up now? Not because I'm losing sleep over my GPA for a couple semesters twelve years ago. No, I still think about it because I see students who might be prone to the same unproductive modes of thinking. I'd like to think I've matured into somebody with more of a "growth" mindset, but I do think I still have those same tendencies. (Maybe explains why I haven't yet learned how to ski...) I want my students to be better than me–to recognize those tendencies earlier, to know how to react to failure. I'm not worried about their GPAs; they'll survive a bad semester or two just like I did. But I know they'll get a lot more out of life if they're equipped to handle challenges.

A golden credential is no guarantee of success, and in the process of trying to secure one for their kids, parents are depriving them of what they really need: the ability to learn from their mistakes, to be knocked down and to pick themselves up—the ability, in other words, to fail gracefully. That is probably the most important lesson our kids will learn at school, and instead many are being taught the opposite.

I suppose it's the same as my trying to cultivate "grit" in my students. More than any verb conjugation or Latin epic, that's what I hope they take from my class. I should probably start failing more students. They'll thank me later.