Monday, October 4, 2010

Perception and Perspective

Surely tied to my new professional challenge, I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about the notion of success. What it means? What it looks like? Is it eternally elusive, as you achieve one marker and then go on to the next? All interesting questions—but they are not really the issue here. I’m pondering a different aspect of success.
Success, of course, varies depending on context. A budding tennis player finally strikes a perfect serve. An artist mixes colors for just the right shade of orange. A carpenter crafts a perfect arm on a rocker. I’m seeking a common denominator here. Why do some people thrive and even flourish while others stagnate, even those who seem successful? I believe the answer lies in perception and perspective. This determines how we accept responsibility for the challenges we face. Robert Sternberg of Yale, one of the leading contemporary thinkers on creative intelligence, calls it a matter of “purposeful engagement.”
Stanford professor Carole Dweck has spent the past two-plus decades studying this question. Her conclusion in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success: “the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects how you lead your life.” Her research has shown that people fall into two neat categories: those with a fixed mindset, and those with a growth mindset. That seems simple enough. The implications are extreme.
People with a fixed mindset believe that individuals have a fixed amount of an ability or characteristic. X intelligence, y ethical character, z personality type—in this mindset, in a sense anatomy is destiny. Consequently, people place limitations on themselves. They believe that they must constantly prove they have an adequate amount of whatever quality is being assessed. In the most extreme cases, anything deemed less than total success is seen as failure.
People with a growth mindset passionately stretch themselves and stick to it. Even when things are not going well, determination allows them to persevere. In fact, they seek and revel in new challenges. Everything becomes an opportunity for improvement. When they make a mistake, they voice the philosophy advocated by Ben Zander in The Art of Possibility. Instead of becoming derailed, they say, “How fascinating!” and learn from the experience. They are constantly creating new frameworks into which they can place their learning. These people more often get caught up in what Mihaly Csikszentimhalyi has identified as optimal “flow” experiences, those moments of almost euphoric absorption.
I believe that helping children maintain such a mindset is one of the most important gifts we can give them. I say “maintain” because they seem to have it inherently. Watch young children play. Watch the chances they are willing to take. Errors and embarrassment don’t cripple them. Only as they grow older and become more aware of social norms and others' expectations does the shift occur. It’s why I dislike the t-shirts that say “Second place is just first loser.” It symbolizes many aspects of our culture—including some traditional practices in schools—that promote a fixed mindset. And neuroscience has revealed that genes and environment cooperate in human development.
Unless you have a fixed mindset, for you this should beg an essential question: How does one help children develop a growth mindset? I’m curious what you think.


Brett Stalcup said...

Mark, you have obviously shared your heart on your first blog. My wife,Sanka, reminds me daily that "life begins at the end of our comfort zone". If we can teach our children to use their talents, share their gifts, and respect themselves and friends while learning something along the way, we have done our jobs. Warren Buffet wrote that the best business advice he gave someone was to give "unconditional love". I agree with Mr. Buffet. I sometimes feel we get caught up in kids' brains when we should invest more in their hearts. We are excited about your perspective and look forward to your leadership. Blessings, Brett Stalcup

Sylvia Venable said...

Ah, yes...the eternal question of how to keep the brain engaged, sharp, and receptive! As an educator at St. John's for 23 years now, I have two nouns that preclude all others in the scenario of how to keep students engaged: passion and variety. I have been teaching German for 26 years, and I never teach the same material the same way. This search for innovation renders the subject ever fresh and new, and keeps me from sounding stale and complacent. Additionally, my passion for travel, language, and culture--nay, for life itself--must be the cornerstone of the transmission of my knowledge quotient to others. Without those two qualities, my material and my persona become trite, passionless, airless entities, and I have no business in the classroom. And I might mention one more quality: a genuine love of my student clientele, both individually and collectively, perhaps more than any other aspect of my teaching, should inform my days. The combination of those three features, I hope, will be my legacy for years to come. Kudos to you, Mark Crotty, for pondering the essential fulcrum that drives the wheels of teaching and learning. As ever, Sylvia Venable, PhD

Mark Crotty said...

Thanks for the kind words, Brett. Your insights brought to mind two things. One of my wife’s favorite expressions is “You can make straight A’s and flunk life.” I think we can all come up with examples to prove that. The other is the story of Joe Ehrmann, former Baltimore Colt who is now the football coach at Gilman School. He tells his players that the coaches’ job is to love them and that the players’ job is to love each other. There is a wonderful book titled "Season of Life" about him.

And Sylvia, thanks for the thoughts. One of the great educational writers is Parker Palmer. He’s not a theoretician. Instead, he muses on what it truly means to be a teacher. One of his most important lines is “You teach who you are.” Your comments reveal that notion beautifully.

Sylvia Venable said...

Thanks, Mark. For all our edification, would you submit a title or two by Parker Palmer which we might read? Thanks, Sylvia V.

Mark Crotty said...

Sylvia, the Palmer title with which I'm most familiar is The Courage to Teach. This is the one purely focused on education.

Sylvia Venable said...

Thanks so much for the tip. Sincerely, Sylvia V.