"Lack of will power has caused more failure than lack of intelligence or ability." ....Flower A. Newhouse.

Commentary of the Day - January 7, 2013. The Mindset that Matters.  Guest commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).

Modern education reformers have consistently distinguished themselves in devising novel ways to foul things up.  Even when they've resorted to recycling their bad ideas, which they frequently have, they've always been able to conjure a new name.  That's why twenty years ago we were "restructuring" schools by reinstituting follies that failed in the 1970s, and today we're "transforming" schools by reinstituting the same bankrupt 1970s follies.

Consider self-described, "world renowned psychologist: Carol Dweck's musings on intelligence.  Ms. Dweck has been a psychology professor since those same fabled 1970s.  Along the way she's written lots of books and articles about public education and the way classrooms should work.  Like most experts the education world reveres, one thing she's never been is a K-12 classroom teacher.

I ran into Ms. Dweck's latest groundbreaking theory about "mindsets" in a Scientific American article.  She bills her notions as the "new science of success," but the fact that her speculations could appear in Scientific American makes clear that public education isn't the only institution that's wandered off the rails.  Anyway, you can also learn about "mindsets" in her book, video, workshop presentation, software series, educator training program, monthly subscription newsletter, and school kit.  In case you're interested, the school kit retails at several thousand dollars per school.

Ms. Dweck posits that "our society worships talent" and overemphasizes intellect.  As to her first supposition, we don't worship talent.  We worship celebrity, regardless of the reason the celebrity is famous.  We certainly don't value intellect, given what commonly passes for news and entertainment, although most of us probably don't undervalue it quite as much as Ms. Dweck does.

Ms. Dweck disagrees with the "dangerous notion" that intelligence is "an inborn trait."  In contrast to that "fixed mindset," her "growth mindset" scientific theory reassuringly preaches that "you can be as smart as you want to be."  Please note that while she’s apparently willing to ignore the role of genetics when it comes to intelligence, she nowhere argues that you can be as tall as you want to be or as blue-eyed as you want to be.

Anybody who thinks that "innate" intelligence doesn't exist needs to spend more time with real students in an actual classroom than she obviously has.  Failing that, she could spend more time on a bench at the mall watching adults and see the same reality in action.  Intelligence isn't the Tooth Fairy.  It doesn't determine our value as human beings, but it definitely does exist.

In fairness to Ms. Dweck, many modern Americans seem unfamiliar with the connection between success and effort.  Some of us, all along the talent spectrum, are strangers to breaking a sweat.  Ms. Dweck clearly believes in the efficacy of effort.  The trouble is she touts effort over intelligence, as if she had to pick one.  Effort undeniably yields improved performance, no matter how smart you are, but smart is real, too.

Effort can be overrated as well.  Edison famously observed that genius was one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.  Except thousands of men and women in his factory went home at least as sweaty as he did year after year, and none of them owned a thousand patents.

Her theory leads Ms. Dweck to some dubious conclusions.  She contends that "fixed mindset" students, the ones who believe in innate intelligence, "do not like effort."  If that gross generalization isn't enough, they also "avoid challenges," "don't handle setbacks well," and are more prone to "blame others" and "consider cheating."

At the other end of the stereotyping spectrum, "growth mindset" students "love a challenge," regard mistakes as "our friends," and "want to learn above all else."  While their fixed mindset classmates obsess about "looking smart" and "getting good grades," growth mindset students believe that learning is "more important."

How's that for typecasting?  All we need are the black and white hats.

Mindsets purportedly affect more than academic performance.  According to Ms. Dweck, employees who believe that innate intelligence exists are more likely to "hamper communication and progress in the workplace."  Closer to home, mindsets affect "the quality and longevity of personal relationships" because fixed mindset spouses are "less likely" to "solve" and "broach problems in their relationships."

Ms. Dweck's theory also spawns unsound classroom recommendations.  To encourage effort, she advises teachers to describe "easy tasks" as "boring and less useful."  Except how will that make students who can only do easy tasks feel?

Ms. Dweck condemns homework assignments where students practice what they've learned as "mindless, repetitive exercises."  Except how are students supposed to master skills?

In a reprise of 1970s subjective, self-esteem-based grades, Ms. Dweck prescribes that teachers "grade for growth."  Students who fail to master a unit or skill receive a grade of "Not Yet."  This allegedly leaves them "not ashamed" because they know they'll succeed "the next time, or the next."

Ms. Dweck expects teachers to "figure out" how every student "can break through that impasse" when they "don't improve."  But no matter how energetic and creative our teachers, eventually we all reach impasses we can't break through, material we can't understand.  For each of us this comes at different times, but it comes.  Yes, some things I can't do yet.  Other things I'll never be able to do.

Ms. Dweck’s opinion notwithstanding, some errors do stem from a "lack of ability."  If you insist that a "growth mindset" renders you more "likely" to solve relationship problems, you're stuck with the bizarre corollary that people who believe in innate intelligence are more prone to divorce.  As for nobody being born bright, Isaac Newton wasn't just a regular kid who happened to invent calculus at sixteen because he had a growth mindset.

Yes, "great accomplishment" and "genius" are the products of "passion" and "accomplishment."  But it's ridiculous to argue that they're "not something that flows naturally from a gift."  It's unnecessary and pointless, unless you’re trying to artificially inflate self-esteem, to draw any conclusions about the relative value of effort and intelligence, beyond asserting the self-evident fact that both are crucial elements in academic achievement.

Like many of her fellow experts, Ms. Dweck has commandeered the self-evident, distorted it to the point of absurdity, copyrighted it, and peddled it to schools.

When will we say, "Enough"?

I may never be as innately intelligent as the guy in the next seat. I may never achieve as much academically as he does, no matter how hard I try.

But I will always achieve more than I would have if I hadn't tried.

I don't need to deny the existence of intelligence to teach that lesson to my students.

 © 2013, Peter Berger.
Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfield, Vermont.  Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer messages addressed to him in care of the editor.

The Irascible Professor comments: The IP agrees to a large extent with Poor Elijah though he has a somewhat broader view of the idea of innate intelligence.  Namely, he thinks that what we call innate intelligence actually is a collection of inherited mental potentials.  As Dweck notes, these talents can be developed to a greater or lesser degree through application and effort.

In addition in many human endeavors one need only be "smart enough" in order to succeed.  The level of success in those endeavors will be determined as much by the development of organizational, observational, and social skills and by luck as by innate talents.  But, for other endeavors the innate factors determine how successful one can be.  This is particularly true in artistic, academic, and scientific pursuits.

The IP also believes that most people do not develop their talents to the limits imposed by their inherited potential.  He also thinks that anyone who wants to pass themselves off as an expert on what should happen in the classroom should spend a bit of time there first.


The Irascible Professor invites your  .

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