by I.K. Mullins
Copyright©2016 I.K. Mullins. All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or retransmitted in any form or by any means without the written permission of the author.
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According to Dweck’s research, our self-esteem, self-awareness, ability to face and overcome challenges and pretty much all aspects of our lives are strongly influenced by simple beliefs that we have about ourselves. Such beliefs can enable our success or limit our potential, leading to excellence or mediocrity.
Dweck states in her book that people can achieve success by adopting a growth mindset. She describes the growth mindset as a function of a person’s belief, according to which the person’s qualities can be cultivated and developed when the person makes an effort. The growth mindset also means holding a belief that the person can change and improve his or her abilities via practice and experience.
There is no doubt that people have to be willing to improve themselves and they have to work hard to change themselves and to achieve success. However, I would like to address in the following sections a few conclusions made by Dweck.
II.1. Dweck’s conclusion about limitations created by a fixed mindset
First of all, it appears that the growth mindset has to rely on a fixed belief. That is, Dweck’s theory assumes that in order to have a growth mindset, a person has to have a fixed belief in the person’s aptitude for change, renewal and self-improvement. Even when the person with a growth mindset tries hard, yet keeps failing or underachieving, the person does not discard such a fixed belief. Hence, a growth mindset cannot be sustained without it.
Second, the concept of the growth mind as described in Dweck’s book downplays the fact that innate talents help people effectively reach a great success while working hard (or not so hard). Whereas the fixed mind is believed to rely on the faith in innate talents, the Mindset movement questions the very existence of innate talents. The Mindset movement emphasizes the hard work required to master skills, and it supports the hypothesis of “nurture over nature,” which has been advocated and promoted by a number of professional psychologists. In fact, some people go to extremes and label any research that investigates possible connections between genetic makeup and innate talents as “eugenics.”
Before discussing innate talents, it is important to notice that there is no universal definition of innate talents. For the purpose of this analysis, I am going to define an innate talent as a genetic predisposition of a person to easily master skills and exhibit above-average creativity and performance in selected areas of human activities when the person is placed in a favorable environment. The favorable environment is the environment that provides resources and encouragement for developing the person’s abilities, aptitudes, creativity and performance.
Typically, people who have the genetic predisposition to excel in certain areas of human activity also enjoy being involved in such activities, practicing and developing their skills. In the “nurture over nature” debate, however, the existence of such genetic predispositions is often questioned, considered to be of insignificant value or even denied.
In order to figure out just how real innate talents (i.e., genetic predispositions) are, we should recall that medical research has already demonstrated the role of genes in the formation and functioning of the human body and particularly the human brain. For example, many human diseases are known to be hereditary. Genetic brain disorders are known to affect the development and function of the brain, and they are caused by random gene mutations. Some of these gene mutations can be triggered by environmental exposure. Other gene mutations can be passed down through a family. Other brain disorders can be caused by a combination of genetic changes and environmental factors.
It is logical to expect that not all gene mutations affect the human brain negatively. Some gene mutations can also affect the brain in positive ways, so that the brain can have a predisposition to function better in some cognitive and motor areas than in others. For example, we’ve all probably heard anecdotal stories about children who struggle with math and children who master math effortlessly. The difference in children’s ability to master basic math becomes noticeable during the first weeks of their academic studies, in the same environment and with the same teacher. In fact, some studies indicate that a genetic predisposition in mastering math skills might demonstrate itself before children begin studying math.
For example, in July 2014, Oliver Davis and his colleagues from UCL, the University of Oxford and King’s College London, reported in Nature Communications that according to twin and genome-wide analysis, “there is a substantial genetic component to children’s ability in reading and mathematics.”
The researchers estimated that about one half of the observed correlation in these traits is due to shared genetic effects. They used data from the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS) in order to examine the influence of genetics on the reading and mathematics performance of 12-year-old children from approximately 2,800 British families. Twins, as well as unrelated children, were tested for reading comprehension and fluency. They also answered math questions based on the UK national curriculum. After combining this information with DNA data, researchers found a substantial overlap in the genetic variants that impact mathematics and reading.
Robert Plomin from King’s College London, another scientist who collaborated in this research and one of the senior authors of the article, pointed out that this is the first time scientists have estimated genetic influence on learning ability using DNA alone. According to Plomin, the study does not point to specific genes connected to numeracy or literacy, but it rather indicates genetic influence on such complex traits as learning abilities. Plomin writes:
The study also confirms findings from previous twin studies that genetic differences among children account for most of the differences between children in how easily they learn to read and to do math. Children differ genetically in how easy or difficult they find learning, and we need to recognise, and respect, these individual differences. Finding such strong genetic influence does not mean that there is nothing we can do if a child finds learning difficult – heritability does not imply that anything is set in stone – it just means it may take more effort from parents, schools and teachers to bring the child up to speed.
In other words, we all are born different. Just like there are no two people with the same fingertips, there are no two people with the same brain. Different people carry different sets of genetic predisposition to becoming sick and to becoming able to perform above average. If one person has no genetic predisposition to learning math, the person can learn math through hard work. However, the same person can have genetic predispositions to excel in different areas that can be transferable and applicable to a range of professions.
The authors of the study emphasize that our life experiences and our environment are important when it comes to developing skills. In other words, people are shaped by the complex interplay of nature and nurture. This is why I think one would do a disservice to learners by telling them to ignore nature, their genetic predispositions to some areas of human activity.
Certainly, one can work hard and achieve success in the areas in which he or she does not have innate talents. This is particularly applicable to students who have to master many different subjects in order to get a good education. Without a doubt, a well-rounded education is a must, a starting point for the development of specific talents.
However, when it comes to selecting and pursuing a career, is it really wise to ignore people’s genetic predispositions for developing certain skills? After all, when a person with innate talents and aptitudes (i.e., a genetic predisposition) in a certain field works hard to develop and apply those aptitudes, the person might achieve much greater success in that field than people who do not possess such a genetic predisposition.
To a great degree, the person’s belief in his or her innate talents is rooted in the person’s life experience, and it can provide valuable insights into the person’s true innate talents (i.e., genetic predispositions) that have already occasionally manifested themselves. Hence, when it comes to selecting and pursuing a career path, as well as getting the education required for a selected career path, it makes sense to examine the person’s fixed mindset, which represents the person’s beliefs about his or her innate talents or genetic predispositions, to assess them and then work on their development to achieve success.
In my opinion, educators and education researchers do a disservice to people when they place all the emphasis on nurture over nature, denying genetic predispositions and failing to observe and recognize student aptitudes.
In order to illustrate my point of view, let me use an analogy with diamond cutting. Figuratively speaking, any person is like a raw diamond with a certain set of latent innate talents. When revealed and developed, these talents can make a real difference. They can make the person “shine.” As long as these talents are not acknowledged nor developed, they remain latent inside the person just like the shine remains hidden inside a raw diamond.
A raw diamond is transformed into a faceted gem by means of diamond cutting. A jeweler has to find the right directions to cut the diamond to reveal its maximum beauty. In a way, identifying the person’s innate talents might be similar to finding the right directions in diamond cutting. The person’s great potential can be revealed in the process. If such potential is identified and a person works hard on its development, then the person can potentially achieve great success. If such potential is not identified and efforts are randomly applied to develop just any of the person’s abilities, then the process may become similar to forcefully shattering the diamond into a pile of small pave diamonds.
In other words, the growth mindset is needed to develop abilities. However, paying attention to the beliefs about genetic predispositions may help with identifying them and designing a strategy for their development and application.
II.2. Dweck’s interpretation of certain experiments pertaining to the assessment of mindsets
In my opinion, some experiments and anecdotal stories about student experiences at schools and universities, which we find in Dweck’s book, do not tell us about people’s mindsets, their set of beliefs about themselves. Instead, they tell us about the set of beliefs and expectations that the system imposes on people and about people’s ways to fit into a system. By the system, I understand experiments set by psychologists, as well as any educational system, workplace or society at large.
For example, in the experiments with children, Dweck and her colleagues divided the children into two groups and asked them to solve puzzles. After a certain period, the children had to tell how many puzzles they had solved. Then, the experimenter praised them. The first group of children received from the experimenters such praises as “You got eight out of ten! You must be very smart!” The second group of children received from the experimenters such phrases as “Eight out of ten! You must have worked very hard. You can be proud of yourself.”
After being praised, the children were offered the opportunity to solve another set of puzzles. They were allowed to solve either puzzles that were as difficult as the previous set of puzzles, or puzzles that were more difficult. It turned out that most of the children who were praised for their intelligence picked the puzzles of the same level of difficulty, and the children who were being praised for working hard chose the more difficult puzzles.
My question is: Is it possible that the children considered the initial praise from the researchers as an indication of what they were really required to demonstrate during the experiment? For example:
- The first group of children might have been led to think they were required to demonstrate their smartness. When they were unable to solve more difficult puzzles, they thought that the experiment was over for them. The only way to resume the experiment for these children would be to pick puzzles similar to those they have already solved.
- The second group of children might have been led to think they were required to demonstrate a sincere effort to work out the puzzle. Hence, they continued working on the other puzzles since the researchers’ praise had hinted to them that such behavior would be rewarded.
At the end of the experiment, children expressed their further compliance with the experiment conditions: the children, who heard the praise for their intelligence, were much more likely to say that they thought intelligence was more important than effort.
Can this explanation of the outcomes of the experiment be more plausible than the conclusion that children’s mindsets were drastically affected by a single lab experiment? Personally, I think that it took several formative years of family upbringing and education, peer and social influence to form those children’s mindsets, not just a few hours of the experiment.
II.3. Dweck’s assessment of the role of mindsets in achieving success
A growth mindset is a must for anyone who wishes to achieve a better performance, reduce stress, and enjoy the process of learning. However, it is not the only prerequisite for success. Other conditions include the presence of an innate talent (i.e., a genetic predisposition), as well as nurture and resources that come with higher socioeconomic status.
It is well known that children born to families with higher socioeconomic status enjoy many advantages, including intellectual stimulation, parental encouragement, better nutrition, etc. They continue enjoying many advantages when they grow up and make use of the social connections, business connections and resources that their family’s socioeconomic position brings.
Different interpretations can also allow some people to take advantage of the concept of the growth mindset and ascribe to it a meaning different from the one given in Dweck’s research. For example, instead of addressing political and economic barriers and changing the environment that prevents not-haves and their children from achieving success, they can blame a culture of poverty and the wrong mindset of the not-haves for their setbacks. When it comes to the declining quality of education, they can blame children’s mindset instead of addressing the problems with school curricula and quality of teaching.
Certainly, it is not Dweck’s fault that other people can take advantage of the concept of different mindsets. However, it is a trend in our society that the reader should be aware of.
Dweck’s idea of the growth mindset sounds similar to ideas of getting out of one’s comfort zone, trying hard, working hard and not being intimidated by setbacks. These ideas are not new. In fact, all the cultures in the world have centuries-old proverbs and colloquial expressions that emphasize the role of hard work, self-confidence and persistence in achieving success. Every students knows that. Every gifted student in a music school, for example, also knows that talent is not enough and that lots of practice is needed to master a musical instrument.
Even though the idea of the importance of hard work is not novel, Dweck’s observations and recommendations on how to nurture and develop someone’s self-confidence and desire to work hard do have certain pedagogical value. Which is why I recommended Mindset to parents and teachers, who can learn from the book about various ways of motivating and encouraging students.