Dr. Quintin Shepherd

Dr. Quintin Shepherd

Did you know Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote his first symphony at 8 years old? I’ve also read Chess Grandmaster Bobby Fischer was playing chess at age 6. There are numerous stories about child prodigies, kids who achieve at a masterful level at a very young age.

My grandfather used to tell me that my mother would set up her dolls when she was 5 years old and “teach” them. She grew up to become a teacher, and I may be biased on my opinion, but she stands as one of the best teachers I ever knew.

There is a wonderful debate about whether great teachers are born or made. This is essentially a nature versus nurture question. The nature versus nurture debate also exists in other fields as well, like math or science.

Carol Dweck wrote a seminal work, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” a little more than a decade ago and, with her publication, created a paradigm shift in business and education. Dweck found that individuals largely succeed or fail based on how they think about intelligence.

People can be divided into two categories fixed- or growth-oriented.

People with a fixed mindset believe intelligence is stable. They see everyone as placed on a ruler, some people at the low end of the intelligence scale and some at the upper end. Regardless of where they fall, they are fixed on that level of intelligence, and it doesn’t really change over time.

People with a fixed mindset are easy to pick out in a crowd for a few reasons. First, those who are fixed and believe they are on the high end are quick to demonstrate their intelligence for others. Those with a fixed mindset about intelligence also generally shy away from challenges (if you fail, others may see your true ability). Fixed intelligence mindset people are also generally threatened by negative feedback as those who are criticizing you are essentially claiming to be smarter than you.

Generally, they also don’t work as hard, because really smart people don’t have to try hard; they’re just smart, and not-so-smart people shouldn’t try hard because there’s no point.

Dweck explains the second group have a growth mindset when it comes to intelligence. These people firmly believe intelligence is something like a muscle that can be grown over time.

These people generally test themselves more (despite the risk). As an example, if you can regularly run 5 miles and try for 8 but fail, nobody is going to say you were born weak ... you’re just growing.

These growth-oriented people also accept criticism differently. It still hurts to hear, but ultimately helps you grow. Hard work is embraced because it’s the only path toward improvement. These people generally don’t care about “measurement” at all unless it can be used to help gauge growth or improvement.

None of us fit squarely in one camp or the other, and we’re being untrue to ourselves if we say otherwise. Here’s an example: we often hear people say things like, “I can’t speak in public,” “I can’t draw,” “I can’t sing,” etc. You say it, and I do, too. This is an example of fixed mindset. Almost none of us would say something like, “I was born with an inability to ever ride a bike.” That statement is absurd and is an example of how we all have a growth mindset. My point is we are all a mix of fixed and growth mindsets.

One last piece about Dweck’s findings. Your mindset can change over time and is largely formed in childhood. “I can’t do math” is a fixed mindset and detrimental. We are giving ourselves permission to never try, accept failure and never challenge ourselves. Almost nobody is born with an inability to ever do math. If we say it, our kids will say it.

Let’s all agree that we’re never going to say it in front of children ever again. It’s hurtful to them and limiting to their potential. If a child says, “I can’t read (or do math, or any other subject),” and we accept it, we are giving them permission to quit.

If you are hearing these phrases at home, please talk with your child’s teacher. We will work hard to find a successful path for them in order to eliminate this phrase from their vocabulary. When a child does well on an assignment or test, please don’t say, “You’re so smart. I’m proud of you,” because this reinforces a fixed mindset. Instead, try something like, “I’m proud of you and you earned this fantastic grade because you worked hard” (growth mindset).

As I wrap this up, I’d like to circle back to the school/district report cards and letter grades. These are getting a lot of attention around Texas these past two weeks. As you watch the statewide reports, I’ll ask you to pay attention to how schools talk about their success.

Let’s all agree to chuckle at the schools and districts that are boasting about how smart they are. Their fixed mindset will also be limiting to their growth, they will suffer the criticism harshly if their scores someday fall and many have stopped challenging themselves to improve education holistically.

It’s a bit like knowing a punchline to a joke they may not understand. At Victoria ISD, we will choose to have a growth mindset and believe our continued success is because we will work hard. We will try, try and try again. We will win or we will learn (but never fail).

Ours is a path of continuous improvement.

Dr. Shepherd is the superintendent of the Victoria Independent School District.

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