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Video interview: The importance of mindsets

In this interview, Peter Samuelson, Thrive Foundation for Youth’s Director of Research speaks with David Yaeger, Director of the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development at Tufts University on growth mindset.

Peter: Research has demonstrated that having a growth mindset is important for youth development. What is a growth mindset? How is it defined?

David: Carol Dweck and her colleagues have described a growth mindset as simply the idea that intelligence is a malleable quality, not something you’re born with at a fixed level, but something you grow and develop with experience over time. The reason why that can be helpful is that in society there’s often a view that if something is hard for you it means you fundamentally lack ability and that undermines thriving and undermines resilience. Growth mindset can provide optimism and facilitate resilience.

Peter: Why is it important for young people to have a growth mindset? Why is it important to youth thriving?

David: Part of thriving in society involves being prepared to overcome the challenges and difficulties that you face. All of us take on new roles in society. We move from one school to the next, one job to the next, one institution to the next. When it happens we face challenges that we may or may not have been prepared for in advance. In those moments how a person makes sense of those challenges, the story they tell themselves about them can powerfully influence their ability to cope and overcome those challenges.

A growth mindset is one factor among many that allows a person to see some difficulty, some adversity as an opportunity for growth, as a chance to learn, a chance to develop, as opposed to a sign that perhaps you can’t succeed and can’t thrive.

Peter: If a youth has a growth mindset, does it show up everywhere in their lives? Is it possible to have a growth mindset in one area and not in another? What does that look like?

David: A really important question right now around growth mindsets is whether you can simply tell a child to have a growth mindset or teach them a growth mindset and then that they will be resilient in all aspects of life. What we’re learning increasingly is that as children develop they develop more specific views of their abilities and their traits in different areas. While really young children may have a global view that being a good person or not is a fixed entity, as children develop and come into adolescence there’s more compartmentalization.

A person may say, “Sure. I can get better at math, but I’ll never become a good writer. Sure I can get better at sports. I’ll never get better at school.” A challenge is how might we develop aspects of growth mindset in a domain where a child can have success and then invite that child to see an analogy to other domains. When you look at our intervention materials that’s often what we do. We say, “Look. You used to not be able to ride a bike. You developed the ability to learn how to ride a bike.” There are a lot of other skills that people acquire. While growth mindset is not a global belief that affects all areas of life, it could be if we do a better job of building bridges of a growth mindset across different aspects.

Peter: In your research you have developed these bridges and have you seen effects?

David: A common aspect of any program that we’ve developed to teach a growth mindset is to invite a child or a young person to reflect on settings where they’ve used a growth mindset perhaps in another way. In one set of experiments we had young people who learned how to do something hard at summer camp. They learned how to climb the ropes course, they learned how to swim, they did something that was scary, then they learned how to do it and then they overcame it.

Upon the transition to high school we said, “How is that a lesson that might apply to other scary things you might face, like more difficult algebra or tough criticism on a writing exercise?”

Increasingly we’re thinking that things like thriving and resilience across tough life transitions are done because people can make an analogy and see how the new difficulty is related in some way to something they’ve overcome in the past.

Peter: We’ve talked a little bit about some of the interventions that are effective in developing a growth mindset. What makes these interventions effective, do you think?

David: One of the most important things for changing any aspect of a young person’s internal beliefs or values is, at least in Western society, to not have it be imposed by adults who imply that the child has some kind of flaw in his or her mind or beliefs. We never start from the position of, “We adults have figured it all out. You should do what we say.”

Instead, we simply invite young people to learn about true information, accurate ways of potentially perceiving the world and then say, “You have wisdom that we as adults don’t have. You as a young person are an expert in your own life. Would you mind explaining to other students like you how this mindset, this idea might be beneficial?”

A key takeaway is that when attempting to help adolescents adopt more productive mindsets is to do less telling and more inviting to create and explore and develop those mindsets on their own.

Peter: You talked a little about the timing of the intervention implied, at least, in some of your answers. What’s important about the timing of an intervention around mindset?

David: There are two things that are important for timing in interventions, we think, for adolescents especially. One is that the time in a person’s life can determine whether they’re going through an adversity or a challenge. A mindset is especially relevant when it’s used in a way that helps you interpret an ongoing challenge. If everything is fine you don’t need a growth mindset because you’re coasting on your ability, you’re not being pushed and challenged. Life transitions such as the transition to high school, the transition to college, the transition from college to the workplace, these are occasions to doubt your ability, to doubt your belonging and in those moments a growth mindset maybe experience beneficial.

Transitions have a second benefit, especially around the internalization of new beliefs because when you’re making a life transition to a new job, a new setting, a new school, you’re also wondering which of the beliefs that I have are relevant here? That is, people are open to attitude change and are open to belief change, we think, because of a life transition. Timing can matter, both for when the mindset is relevant and also when you’re open to potentially adopting another mindset.

Peter: How can adults help youths adopt a growth mindset? Does it require an intervention or are there some everyday habits or messages that adults can give to youths?

David: One of the best ways to make an adolescent not adopt a growth mindset is for adults to tell them to and say that it’s good for them. A joke that I sometimes tell is that adolescents can seem to be evolutionarily-designed adult belief rejectors. There’s a sense in which the adult saying, “No, you shouldn’t give up. You should have a growth mindset,” might be seen as like being told to eat their vegetables or go for a run or tuck in their shirt.

Instead, when growth mindset is offered as an opportunity to fight back against the tendency to put you in a box and tell you what you’re not good at, for instance, as a way of freeing you to make choices that allow you to be the kind of person you’d like to be. In some of our new work we pair our growth mindset with a sense of purpose. The idea, “Not only can I learn, but what can I do for the world if I learn?”

In those instances, then, a growth mindset is highly aligned with adolescent values, values such as defining a positive identity in the world, values such as mattering to others and being connected to others. A growth mindset is simply one route that an adult is helping a young person adopt.

One major takeaway is when trying to help adolescents develop a growth mindset is to offer it in a way that’s aligned with the kind of person that an adolescent can afford to be and would like to be given their life stage.

A second really important thing for adults is to think carefully about what you praise, what you criticize, how you criticize and what you imply based on the feedback you give young people. When I was a middle school teacher I was tempted to praise the students who got the answer most quickly because I wanted to move on with the lesson. What does that say to the student who’s really considering what the meaning of the idea is and the meaning of the question is?

Everything from how we wait for answers, how we praise, what we imply in our grading policies can lead an adolescent to infer a growth mindset. Those opportunities are naturalistic. They happen every day whether we want them to or not and they happen outside of the purview of a program that’s developed by a researcher.

Peter: Are there some special challenges in today’s world for youth to develop a growth mindset?

David: One challenge is simply the tendency among all of us concerned parents to grasp on to any idea that seems really promising and then expect too much of it, or at least expect too much of simplified versions of those ideas. A real challenge is the temptation to turn growth mindset into a kind of magic bullet solution or as a kind of excuse to not work with students, “That student can’t learn. He’s got a fixed mindset.” One challenge is what a growth mindset looks like in the wild and how might it be distorted and how might we learn better how to not do that.

A second challenge, however, is the societal norms we have around emphasizing genius and talent. The idea that people succeed because they have raw talent exclusively, not because of effort that they engaged in. In American culture, interestingly, we both have the Little Engine that could story, right?

Peter: Right.

David: We have this culture of genius, culture of talent story that the lone genius invented everything with his or her own ability. Helping adolescents navigate these different cultural tropes is one challenge that we have with growth mindset.

Peter: Are there any special challenges for disadvantaged youth?

David: Yeah. Unfortunately as a society we often apply negative stereotypes to individuals and their ability on the basis of group membership. People like Claude Steele have a long-developed theory around the notion that simply being aware that other people might view you or your group as low-ability can interfere with your intelligence. What Mary Murphy at Indiana University is showing, a student of Claude Steele’s, is that the implied mindset climate, whether the teacher thinks that ability is fixed, can disproportionately affect those who are simultaneously aware of intellectual stereotypes about their group.

Women, for instance, in quantitative fields, computer science, engineering, are disproportionately harmed by teachers who harbor a fixed mindset. Students of color, unfortunately, who are in classes where teachers harbor a fixed mindset are also disproportionately harmed and earn lower grades in ninth grade even if they had the same eighth grade test scores. As we think about a growth mindset both, it’s helpful for anyone going through an adversity, but it is especially helpful for those who have to contend with negative societal stereotypes about the ability of their group.

Peter: How can youth development programs help youth in promoting a growth mindset?

David: One active area of research is how authentic relationships with caring adults can be a context for developing growth mindset beliefs. We don’t fully know everything, but there is some amazing research done by Mark Lepper on to date the world’s greatest educational innovation which is one-on-one tutoring with thoughtful, caring adults. In classic text one-on-one mentors can get two standard deviation improvements even with the most disadvantaged students.

Mark Lepper, here at Stanford, observed what those people do. When you read these observations you realize what they do is they create belonging, they create purpose and they especially imply a growth mindset. They (educational one-to-one tutors) provide a young person with a challenge that’s just outside of his or her range, but they don’t leave that child alone and isolated. They say, “I’m with you in a supportive way until you meet that challenge, but I’m never lowering my standard because this standard is high out of respect and dignity.” Caring relationships with mentors and adults where young people are held to high standards, but given an occasion to learn how to reach that high standard is one of the best naturalistic ways to create a growth mindset.

Peter: What got you interested in researching growth mindset?

David: Yeah, that’s a great question. I became interested in doing research at all because I was once a mediocre middle school teacher. I was decent at motivating my students. I wasn’t terribly effective yet at helping them acquire skills in grammar and writing. I realized in general that when I went to professional development that I had hoped would help me gain new skills that I was really unsatisfied with the clarity of the advice that I got. There were very few instances where people could say with an experiment, “We said this or that and this helped the students do better than that.” I became inspired to try to be a part of a research community that produces those kinds of findings. I’ve followed the lead of mentors like Carole Dweck and Claude Steele and others who I simply aspired to be like.

Peter: David, thank you very much for your insightful answers and for your work in growth mindset. I know you’re changing the lives of youth.

David: Thank you.

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