Central to Dweck's work is a distinction between two ways that learners come to understand intelligence:
... I developed a broader theory of what separates the two general classes of learners—helpless versus mastery-oriented. I realized that these different types of students not only explain their failures differently, but they also hold different “theories” of intelligence. The helpless ones believe that intelligence is a fixed trait: you have only a certain amount, and that’s that. I call this a “fixed mind-set.” Mistakes crack their self-confidence because they attribute errors to a lack of ability, which they feel powerless to change. They avoid challenges because challenges make mistakes more likely and looking smart less so.
The mastery-oriented children, on the other hand, think intelligence is malleable and can be developed through education and hard work. They want to learn above all else. After all, if you believe that you can expand your intellectual skills, you want to do just that. Because slipups stem from a lack of effort, not ability, they can be remedied by more effort. Challenges are energizing rather than intimidating; they offer opportunities to learn. Students with such a growth mind-set, we predicted, were destined for greater academic success and were quite likely to outperform their counterparts.
It's easy to imagine how students with a helplessness mindset would struggle academically: The slightest adversity will be taken as evidence of an innate deficiency, and so the helpless learner will figure out to avoid the tasks that manifest this deficiency. As we've discussed a lot here at ISW, studying philosophy can be awfully intimidating and can bring to the surface various insecurities about one's academic abilities. It would not shock me if intro to philosophy classes are places where this difference in how students see learning and intelligence play a huge role in their motivation and subsequent performance.The practical upshot of Dweck's work is that praise — and in particular, how we praise — shapes whether learners acquire the helpless or mastery learning outlook:
How do we transmit a growth mind-set to our children? One way is by telling stories about achievements that result from hard work. For instance, talking about math geniuses who were more or less born that way puts students in a fixed mind-set, but descriptions of great mathematicians who fell in love with math and developed amazing skills engenders a growth mind-set, our studies have shown. People also communicate mind-sets through praise. Although many, if not most, parents believe that they should build up a child by telling him or her how brilliant and talented he or she is, our research suggests that this is misguided.
In studies involving several hundred fifth graders published in 1998, for example, Columbia psychologist Claudia M. Mueller and I gave children questions from a nonverbal IQ test. After the first 10 problems, on which most children did fairly well, we praised them. We praised some of them for their intelligence: “Wow … that’s a really good score. You must be smart at this.” We commended others for their effort: “Wow … that’s a really good score. You must have worked really hard.”
We found that intelligence praise encouraged a fixed mind-set more often than did pats on the back for effort. Those congratulated for their intelligence, for example, shied away from a challenging assignment—they wanted an easy one instead—far more often than the kids applauded for their effort. (Most of those lauded for their hard work wanted the difficult problem set from which they would learn.) When we gave everyone hard problems anyway, those praised for being smart became discouraged, doubting their ability. And their scores, even on an easier problem set we gave them afterward, declined as compared with their previous results on equivalent problems. In contrast, students praised for their effort did not lose confidence when faced with the harder questions, and their performance improved markedly on the easier problems that followed.
So a question for us philosophy instructors: Is it too late in the academic careers of the students we teach (i.e., college leval) to think that the forms of praise (or criticism) would have any impact on their conception of learning? Suppose that it's not too late. Do we praise (or criticize) students in ways that encourage the fixed intelligence view or in ways that encourage the mastery/effort view? It seems like the message from Dweck is that our praise and criticism needs to be very task-specific, referring not to alleged facts about students but facts about their work and the efforts that produce it. I'd be interested to hear about the styles of feedback or feedback mechanisms that people use and whether these provide feedback along the lines recommended by Dweck.