Friday, March 25, 2016

Mindset and Deliberate Practice

After learning more about deliberate practice in Ericsson, Krampe, andTesch-Romer’s article, that high performance is correlated more with effort than natural talent, it’s important to figure out the difference between a person who performs deliberate practice and one that does not.

This week, I read “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” by Carol Dweck. Dweck argues that the key contrast between these two groups of individuals is mindset. Some have a fixed mindset and some have a growth mindset. To differentiate between the two, a person with a fixed mindset believes their skills and performance to be static properties, and in the growth mindset, these qualities can be improved overtime as a direct result of effort and practice.

In a fixed mindset, you are born with a certain intelligence, specific athletic ability, etc. Try as you might, you’re stuck that way. As a result, fixed-minded individuals do not value practice. They also tend to be defensive. Within a mindset where improvement doesn’t exist, any criticism becomes a personal, permanent reflection of the person’s qualities and performance.  They avoid challenges; taking part in a difficult task might expose themselves to (highly exaggerated) outside judgment. “As a New York Times article points out, failure has been transformed from an action (I failed) to an identity (I am a failure)” (Dweck 33). To fail at a task or receive negative feedback necessarily devalues the fixed-minded individual.

In defense of their intelligence and ability, those with a severely fixed mindset can be self-destructive. “Everything I [Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg] was going through boiled down to fear. Fear of trying and failing. . . . If you go to an audition and don’t really try, if you’re not really prepared, if you didn’t work as hard as you could have and you don’t win, you have an excuse. . . . Nothing is harder than saying, ‘I gave it my all and it wasn’t good enough’ ” (Dweck 42). So to an extent, a fixed mindset can be comforting. This is likely why it’s so common.

While reading “Mindset,” I found countless examples of how the fixed mindset applies to myself. As a straight-A student through most of grade school, I was usually one of the smartest guys in the room. Not once did I study for a test which was something I took great pride in. Slowly and steadily, however, my grades began to slip. I took it personally but didn’t try to do anything about it. I certainly had enough excuses, though. Unfortunately for my childhood self, it took a few years of declining grades before I switched to a growth mindset. Until that point, I just accepted that I wasn’t the smartest guy in the room anymore. I stopped concerning myself with grades altogether; I wouldn’t look at test grades or report cards or essays that were returned with feedback. I didn’t want to acknowledge any more failures. If I had a growth mindset, this information could have been invaluable. More on that later.

In the growth mindset, you see the same situations quite differently. You see athleticism, intelligence, performance, etc. as something to improve on rather than accept as permanent. In the words of Michael Riordan, a teacher referred to in Dweck’s book, “Performance cannot be based on one assessment. You cannot determine the slope of a line given only one point” (28). High performance is something you achieve, not something you’re born into. The growth-minded don’t limit themselves to their current abilities and level of performance. They consider themselves to be in ongoing development.  

In contrast to the fixed mindset, growth-minded individuals seek challenges. To them, a challenge is an opportunity to learn and improve. A fixed-minded person would shy away from a challenge since it may lead to failure. A growth-minded person is willing to try their best despite exposing themselves to this risk. They see failure not as a reflection on permanent characteristics. It only means more effort is required.

In both Dweck’s “Mindset” and the Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Romer study on deliberate practice,
 the value of natural talent is minimized in achieving high performance. Dweck doesn’t use the term deliberate practice in her work, but there’s clearly an overlap with her ‘growth mindset.’ Effort is required to achieve high performance regardless of natural talent. Improvement is something that happens overtime. Both refer to the fact we consistently undervalue the effort it took for eminent performers to reach the level that they did.

The growth mindset does not necessarily sustain motivation entirely. Rather, it allows for the possibility of deliberate practice. It could be considered a prerequisite of sorts; a key difference between those that do practice and those that don’t. I don’t see this as a guarantee. Understanding that you can develop your abilities doesn’t mean you will. As the Ericsson article points out, “Deliberate practice requires effort and is not inherently enjoyable. Individuals are motivated to practice because practice improves performance” (368). Therefore, the benefit of practice has to outweigh the costs. Having a growth mindset is only part of the battle, and the resource, effort, and motivational constraints are the other parts. Dweck doesn’t argue that a growth-minded person will always try to achieve expert performance. However, she does imply that the growth mindset may lead to such an effort.

Eventually, my childhood self learned the value of hard work and effort. Switching to the growth mindset took time; in some areas it took more time and in other areas, less. Dweck points out that you may not have a growth mindset in every domain and in every part of life, and I agree. Academically, it took a long time to make this change, and until very recently, the fixed mindset would occasionally take over when I faced a particularly difficult task such as in computer science. Now, I’m happy to say that I’ve moved pretty firmly into the growth mindset.  I go out of my way to learn, and I’ve fortunately been able to sustain certain efforts for nearly one out of the minimum ten years of required deliberate practice. I am motivated to keep up the high level of effort. That is something I take great pride in.

While the growth mindset doesn’t hold all the answers to why we do or do not take part in deliberate practice, it may be the key to getting started. The resource, effort, and motivation constraints still play their part in the process, so it’s important to take the deliberate practice article into account. Regardless, mindsets may have a long-lasting impact on what our level of performance will be in the near and distant future.

1 comment:

  1. I wonder if you had your IQ tested as a kid. When I was a kid I'm pretty sure I was given such a test. And I know that my kids had some test in first grade done to determine whether they should be put into the "gifted program" at school. Here is a link I found to an online test of this sort. Such testing, whether valid or not, creates a social assumption of fixed mindset.

    With young kids it is fairly common to track their height and have various measures over time to see the growth. It is much less common to collect a portfolio of the kid's work and see how that seems more expressive and mature over time. We don't measure learning that way, but maybe we should.

    My last comment here is whether learning is different when it is already known stuff (known by the teacher) than when it is fundamentally unknown by anyone (where we call it creativity or research or some label such as that). At issue is whether the nature of the work is the same or if they are quite different.