Genius is made — not born!

I was fortunate to be the Keynote speaker at one of our local high schools.  The format was simple — and my instructions were clear “you need to fill about 45 minutes on the program…say something inspiring and upbeat…get the kids excited about the new school year.” Well, if any of you know high school students, you know very well that 45 minutes of listening to anyone drone on and on about how great school is or will be is a “poke your eyes out moment” for anyone aged 14-18.

But I did my best to at least say something interesting.

I decided to share the compelling research of Stanford Universities Dr. Carol Dweck who is the author of the book “Mindset: the new psychology of success.”  Her research and message is deftly simple — you can be in either a “growth mindset” or a “fixed mindset.”  The fixed mindset comes from our belief that people are born “smart” or “gifted.”  They have a certain static IQ — those in a fixed mindset avoid challenges — effort is really the enemy, because if your smart you don’t need effort.  They really respond negatively to criticism and often will give-up if the challenge is too difficult.  They are threatened by others success and often will disparage them to demonstrate how smart they are in comparison.  Those in a fixed mindset see the world differently from those in a growth mindset.

I see all kinds of archetype kids that display the fixed mindset.  It is those students who act bored in classes that are difficult or demanding. The student who refuses to take particular class or teacher because they fear they will not get the “A.”   Students that at the first sign of difficulty simply shut-down.  Students in a fixed mindset make comments about how they are really the best player in a particular sport but simply choose not play.  These are the kids that will cheat on test, make excuses, blame everyone but themselves for failure.  They really spend a great deal of effort and time masking deficiency.

I was fortunate to be the Keynote speaker at one of our local high schools.  The format was simple — and my instructions were clear “you need to fill about 45 minutes on the program…say something inspiring and upbeat…get the kids excited about the new school year.” Well, if any of you know high school students, you know very well that 45 minutes of listening to anyone drone on and on about how great school is or will be is a “poke your eyes out moment” for anyone aged 14-18.

But I did my best to at least say something interesting.

I decided to share the compelling research of Stanford Universities Dr. Carol Dweck who is the author of the book “Mindset: the new psychology of success.”  Her research and message is deftly simple — you can be in either a “growth mindset” or a “fixed mindset.”  The fixed mindset comes from our belief that people are born “smart” or “gifted.”  They have a certain static IQ — those in a fixed mindset avoid challenges — effort is really the enemy, because if your smart you don’t need effort.  Effort to them is a sign of weakness, because if your athletically or mentally gifted why would you need to work at the task?  They respond negatively to criticism and often will give-up if the challenge is too difficult.  Those in a fixed mindset are threatened by others success and often will disparage them to demonstrate how smart they are in comparison.  Fixed mindset people see the world differently from those in a growth mindset.

I see all kinds of archetype kids that display the fixed mindset.  It is those students who act bored in classes that are difficult or demanding. The student who refuses to take particular class or teacher because they fear they will not get the “A.”   Students that at the first sign of difficulty simply shut-down.  Students in a fixed mindset make comments about how they are really the best player in a particular sport but simply choose not play.  These are the kids that will cheat on test, make excuses, blame everyone but themselves for failure.  They really spend a great deal of effort and time masking deficiency.

We do have educators who can exhibit fixed mindsets in all kinds of situations — but the ones that do the most harm are educators who pigeon-hole kids because they believe they are either “smart” or “dumb” — this saps the motivation out of kids and for the most part they will live up to those expectations.

Some people might recall the famous study of the late-bloomers.  The researchers told teachers that  20% of there class were late-bloomers and they identified those students on the class roster.  Those particular students were chosen at random and many of them had lower IQ scores than their peers in the same classroom.  At the end of the study, they measured IQ and those who were identified as late-bloomers significantly gained.  We call this the Pygmalion effect or some have called this a self-fulfilling prophecy — What teachers think about students matters and if they have identified them even subconsciously in one category or another it can have a major impact on that student.

The growth mindset on the other hand, embraces challenges, if they get knocked down they get back up and try again, they have grit, they love to learn new and different things.  Effort to them is the pathway to success.  They really have no expectations that on the first try they will be successful — but they learn from each unsuccessful attempt and keep trying.  These individuals get inspired by others success. The best example of a growth mindset to me is infants learning to walk. They stand up — fall down, get hurt, wobble, but they keep trying and they don’t give up!  With each successive try they get better until they are not only walking but running.  In that moment, infants are in a growth mindset, failure is not the enemy — it is instructive — imagine if after one try infants simply stopped trying to walk?

Geniuses are made — not born is the cornerstone of the growth mindset and we have all kinds of examples — Albert Einstein — Stephen King — Walt Disney — Michael Jordan — Bill Gates — the list is endless. What do they all have in common — they failed lots and lots of times but kept at it and persevered and even after they were famous they tirelessly worked at their respective crafts.

The theory holds that if kids lived in the growth mindset they will do better in school and ultimately in life and for the most part I would agree.  Kids that do not shy away from challenges, learn how to deal with set-backs, respond positively to constructive criticism do better in school and in life. I can remember in my coaching days whether it was coaching football or model U.N. I wanted kids who were coach-able which is just a code word for the growth mindset.

The real difficulty is getting those in a fixed mindset to move to a growth mindset.  Therein lies the real challenge.  I see people all the time — educated — they know better — yet they still smoke.  Even as the overall attitude towards smokers is negative — many fail to change behavior.  We see this in the choices we make with our food — or lack of exercise.  My point is changing behavior is really hard.  Even if I change the attitudes of the teachers and students to acknowledge the growth mindset — changing the actual behavior and beliefs is very hard.  It will take more than a couple of research studies, or a best-selling book to change behavior of staff and students.   In 1964 the surgeon general published an extensive study on the harmful impact smoking has on your health — yet in 2015 we still have some that smoke in spite of the facts.  Something like the growth mindset in education could take decades to gain traction and be practiced overtly by teachers and students and that is kinda sad.

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About James Herrholtz

Consultant, Teacher, Coach, Administrator for over 23 years. I have been a superintendent of schools, College Instructor, and worked at the Ohio Department of Education heading up the Division of Learning.
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