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2012 February 16

Carol Dweck’s Mindset

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Last week I read Carol Dweck’s book Mindset, and I was not impressed.  I had previously read some of her shorter articles, and was hoping for more detail, but the book does not deliver.  Like many pop psych books, it takes a simple idea that can be adequately explained in 5 pages and tries to fill 239 pages with it. Most of the book is anecdotes about famous people (businessmen and athletes, for the most part) classifying them in a simple binary system: growth mindset or fixed mindset.  Occasionally there is some justification given for the classification, but more often it is just a bald statement, followed by a “growth-mindset-good” or “fixed-mindset-bad” outcome.  About the only anecdotes that have any feeling of depth to them are the ones about herself.

The binary distinction she makes is between a “fixed mindset”—a belief that one’s abilities and disabilities are innate, and a “growth mindset”—a belief that one can improve almost any aspect of oneself.  I know very few people who fall neatly into one or the the other of those categories.  Most people believe that they can improve easily at some things and only with difficulty at others.  Depending what things you ask about and how hard you force a binary choice, you can get very different classifications for the same person.  Her observation (backed up by some decent studies) is that people who approach a learning task with a fixed mindset for that task do not do as well as those who approach the same task with a growth mindset.  The main advice that comes out of this observation is to praise process and effortful achievement, rather than innate ability or effortless achievement.  This is a fairly obvious, common-sense thing to do (I’d been practicing it for years before reading Dweck), but it is nice to see the education community finally backing away from the rather stupid position of praising everyone all the time in order to “build their self-esteem”.  Self-esteem is only good if it reflects reality, which means that it must come from achievement, not empty praise.

If you want to know what is in the book, without wading through the 239 pages, read the Wikipedia article on it, as there isn’t much more content to the book than is in the one-page article.

I was hoping that Chapter 8: “Changing Mindsets: a Workshop” would finally give some useful advice, but it turned out to be just an advertisement for the author’s Brainology™ product with almost no useful information at all!  It is really very clever marketing, to get people to pay $17 for an advertisement!

So, if you want to know about Dweck’s work and its implications beyond the one-page summaries in Wikipedia, newspaper articles (like this one in the NY Times), or TV shows (like this piece in Good Morning America) (all of which are better written than her book), you should read her research papers on her website. They are meatier than the book, and you can get both the evidence and the conclusions in a fraction of the time that it would take to read the book.  Try starting with one of these, for example:

Praise for Intelligence Can Undermine Children’s Motivation and Performance.pdf

Person vs process praise and criticism – Implications for Contingent Self Worth and Coping.pdf

I’ve not been able to find out what is in the Brainology™ product—the website is full of testimonials and the results of studies that (naturally) conclude that the product is great, but almost nothing about what is actually taught.  At $79 for a student, it is a very pricey product for

Given the contentless nature of the website and the book chapter about it, I’m certainly not planning to waste any of my money on Brainology™.

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