Mastery is a Mindset

Principals Pen Thursday, 19 Nov 2020

After recommending it to you at Connect in January, I recently re-read Daniel Pink’s bestseller, Drive. This week, I take the opportunity to share with you some of Pink’s words in relation to the research of Carol Dweck, who coined the term ‘growth mindset’.

As with so many things in life, the pursuit of mastery is all in our head. At least, that’s what Carol Dweck has discovered.

Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, has been studying motivation and achievement in children and young adults for nearly forty years. Dweck’s signature insight is that what people believe shapes what people achieve.

According to Dweck, people can hold two different views of their own intelligence. Those who have an ‘entity theory’ [fixed mindset] believe that intelligence is just that – an entity. Those who subscribe to an ‘incremental theory’ [growth mindset] take a different view. They believe that while intelligence may vary slightly from person to person, it is ultimately something that, with effort, we can increase. In one view, intelligence is something you demonstrate; in the other, it’s something you develop.

The two self-theories lead down two very different paths – one that heads toward mastery and one that doesn’t. For instance, consider goals. Dweck says they come in two varieties – performance goals and learning goals. Getting an A in French class is a performance goal. Being able to speak French is a learning goal.

The two types of thinking trigger contrasting responses to adversity – one that Dweck calls ‘helpless’, the other, ‘mastery-oriented’. In a study of American fifth- and sixth-graders, Dweck gave students eight conceptual problems they could solve, followed by four they could not (because the questions were too advanced for children that age). Students who subscribed to the idea that brain-power is fixed gave up quickly on the tough problems and blamed their (lack of) intelligence for their difficulties. Students with a more expansive mindset kept working in spite of the difficulty and deployed far more inventive strategies to find a solution. What did these students blame for their inability to conquer the toughest problems? ‘The answer, which surprised us, was that they didn’t blame anything,’ Dweck says. The young people recognised that setbacks were inevitable on the road to mastery and that they could even be guideposts for the journey.

Begin with one mindset, and mastery is impossible. Begin with the other, and it can become inevitable.

Time and time again, through her research Dweck has found that children with learning goals achieve higher than those with performance goals. Why? Because children with learning goals don’t set out to prove they’re smart. Rather, their goal is to learn.

As Dweck’s research has shown, children who are praised for ‘being smart’ often believe that every encounter is a test of whether they really are. So to avoid looking dumb, they resist new challenges and choose the easiest path. By contrast, kids who understand that effort and hard work lead to mastery and growth are more willing to take on new, difficult tasks.

So much of Dweck’s work underpins the education philosophy of Living Faith. We aspire for our students to not feel the burden of failure when they have difficulty overcoming a challenge, but to instead harness the power of ‘yet'.

- Jane Mueller, Principal