Coaching Letter #171
Beyond fixed and growth: Mindsets reconsidered
Hello, I hope you are doing well. I’ve been thinking a lot about mindsets recently, so this Coaching Letter, and maybe the next one or two, are about that.
In education it seems like the notion of mindset is dominated by the work of Carol Dweck, who is a psychologist at Stanford. And she indeed has done amazing work. She is best known for the concepts of fixed and growth mindset: a fixed mindset is the belief that your abilities are limited, meaning that they cannot improve or increase; and a growth mindset is the belief that your abilities develop in response to stimulus. A person with a fixed mindset believes that they are (or are not) smart, but a person with a growth mindset believes that they become smart, through effort and learning. For the fixed mindset person, experience at odds with their view of their own abilities presents a challenge to be defended against, because it threatens their self-image, but the growth mindset person sees challenge as an opportunity to get better. If you want more on fixed and growth mindset, here’s a one-page summary that I created a while ago.
Dweck’s book, Mindset, is a great read, although some of the research has been challenged recently – that’s another story. The problem, from my point of view, is that her constructs have come to dominate any discussion of mindset as a broader concept – like the spider plants in my kitchen are always colonizing the pots belonging to other plants. Seriously, they are a menace, despite their entrepreneurial spirit and the fact that they are supposed to be the best plants for air filtration.
So I’d like to suggest, first of all, that we reclaim the word mindset to apply, once again, to more than just fixed and growth. Here’s the definition from Alia Crum, in an episode of the podcast Hidden Brain called Reframing Your Reality (this is the link to the episode on the show’s website; you can listen to Hidden Brain on any podcast platform, but the website also has a link to the research, and to the transcript, which is very useful, just scroll down):
We view mindsets as core assumptions that we make about the nature of ourselves or things in the world. They're beliefs, really. They're a type of belief, but it's a very powerful type of belief, right? So we have mindsets about our own abilities or our intelligence, but we also have mindsets about other things. Mindsets about the nature of stress, mindsets about the capabilities or limitations of our own bodies, mindsets about the enoughness of the foods that we're eating or the exercise we're doing. They're perspectives, they're lenses or frameworks, they're just assumptions about the meaning or the nature of those things… But to go back a step before that is to realize that we have mindsets. So often we think that our beliefs, our experiences are a direct reflection of the world as it objectively is. And what you come to realize is that is just not the case. Our perceptions, our beliefs, our experiences are always an interpretation. They're always filtered through the lenses, the mindsets, that we have.
My favorite anecdote she tells is of being in her lab late at night, and a colleague came by but she looked frazzled and so he left her alone, remarking “just another cold, dark night on the side of Everest”. And this comment, which she took a while to understand, changed her mindset. She no longer saw her work as a source of frustration and humiliation; she began to see the frustration as a tiresome but temporary and necessary phase on the way to a remarkable achievement. If it was easy, everyone could do it. Pushing through the difficulties became a point of pride.
I highly recommend that you listen to the whole podcast, not least because they also talk about the brain as a prediction machine, which is something I learned from the amazing Lisa Feldman Barrett; she has a TED talk and has given lots of podcast interviews, but you might start with The Knowledge Project Ep. #92; again, available wherever you get your podcasts. If you want more LFB, you can search for her on the Coaching Letter website, take a look at her website, and definitely consider reading one of her books.
The concept of mindset came up for me in a big way last week when we hosted a two-day meeting of the Acceleration NIC. (I searched previous Coaching Letters for a good description of the NIC but could not find one, which seems like an egregious omission; I’ll work on it.) One of the practices we encourage districts to employ is to find existing examples of people/grade levels/schools who are particularly successful in a particular domain – success that sets them apart from their peers. These examples are known as positive deviants. I know, right? How can deviance be positive? The typical way we talk about deviance is to describe behavior that is abnormal and antisocial, and it is from there that we acquire the association of deviance as a very bad thing. But deviance, from a statistical point of view, is merely distance from the mean, and positive deviants are simply entities (including people) that embody exceptional performance.
We invited some of the Bridgeport administrators to come present, because of the really smart work that they have done to try to replicate the successes of schools where attendance has increased significantly. Why smart? They took a listening approach, noting what happened when they started asking questions; they studied schools that had made big improvements, not schools where attendance was already high – a crucial distinction; they noticed connections to other parts of the system – how chronic absenteeism was enmeshed with other issues, such as requests to transfer to another school; they studied cases and consolidated evidence; they thought about the implications for their data systems; and they used the whole exercise as a way to build coherence across the system.
One of the things that one of the presenters, Lynn, said really struck me, because it was a connection that had not occurred to me before. She talked about having a “bright spots mindset”, and connected it to her personal gratitude practice (if you want to know more about the benefits of gratitude, you can read CL #14). She talked about how she appreciated doing the work of finding and talking to the bright spots because it reminded her of one of the effects of a gratitude practice; the benefits are cumulative; you start by feeling better because you are paying attention to what is going well, but the impact over time is that you notice sources of gratitude everywhere, and your mindset changes; it becomes the way you look at the world. She called it a snowball effect.
I loved this connection! It helped me see that I had been thinking about looking for bright spots as a protocol within the methods of improvement science – a narrow, technical frame; but I could adopt it as a mindset, a way of seeing the world. And there is an approach to organizational development called Appreciative Inquiry, which I already know about – I own the book, I know one of the authors – which I already know has a research base. And the approach is very much about focusing on what is going well and building on organizational strengths. But somehow I had not made the connection to looking for bright spots. Which was a meaningful and humbling experience, as I think of myself as being good at making these kinds of connections.
So I will get back to my own gratitude practice, and think more expansively, more strategically, and more thoughtfully about finding the bright spots in my work and personal life. I can do that. Best, Isobel
Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Author of The Coaching Letter
Author with Jennie Weiner of The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders: Principles and Processes Routledge, 2021
Author with Sarah Woulfin & Kerry Lord of Making Coaching Matter: Leading Continuous Improvement in Schools Teachers College Press, forthcoming