I have written a number of times in the past about the work of Stanford University professor of educational psychology Carol S. Dweck. But the occasion of a recent article in the Scientific America, "The Secret to Raising Smart Kids," provides an opportunity to do so again.
That title is misleading. For one thing, Dweck's research has implications far-removed from the classroom, including for work and personal relationships. Without knowing it, she is a major mussar (Jewish ethics) thinker.
Basically, Dweck divides the approaches to learning into two categories: helpless vs. mastery-oriented. Those, in turn, are the outgrowth of two different mind-sets one that might be called a fixed mind-set and the other a growth mindset. (Dweck's most recent book is simply called Mindset.)
The central question animating her work is: Why do some students give up when they encounter difficulty, whereas others who are not more skilled continue to strive and learn. Part of the answer lies in the explanations lay in individuals' beliefs about why they failed.
Those who believe that they failed because of a lack of ability and that ability is fixed develop a state of helplessness. Mastery-oriented kids, however, think that intelligence is malleable and can be developed through education and hard work. The students with a growth mind-set feel that learning is a more important goal in school than high grades.
Nowhere is such an attitude more important than in religious studies where the goal of every educator must be to instill in students the feeling that there is no more important activity than Torah learning because that learning binds one to the Divine, which is the essential goal of our lives.
That connection does not depend on one's grades.
The best and most important piece of religious directional advice I ever received came shortly after my arrival at Jerusalem's Ohr Somayach.
My chavrusah (study partner) announced after our first hour of learning, "I'm not quick like you." But within weeks he moved up to a higher shiur, while I languished for months.
When I remarked upon this disparity, a fellow student pointed out in the most succinct possible fashion: "The difference between you and him is that he wants to know the dvar Hashem(Word of G0D), you're still worried about being first in your class." He was so right.
Confronted with setbacks, such as a poor test grade, those with a growth mind-set, whose focus in on the learning itself, resolve to study harder or look for new strategies to master the material. Those who have a fixed mind-set may decide never to take that subject again not an option for fervently-Orthodox males studying Talmud, for instance or to find a way to cheat on the next test, which is hardly an avenue to drawing close to Him.
Feelings of helplessness and passivity are not a function of low ability. Indeed they are often found in those blessed with great natural gifts who misunderstood the meaning of those gifts.
The Scientific American article begins with a case-study of Jonathan (a composite). Jonathan sailed through elementary school, completely his assignments easily and received high grades. He wondered how his fellow students could take so long. Jonathan's parents frequently told him how gifted he was.
But then in junior high, where the material became more demanding, Jonathan simply stopped working at all and his grades plummeted. All his parents' reassurances about how smart he was failed to motivate him.
By virtue of the ease of his early learning, Jonathan came to associate intelligence with never having to work, and thus when he was first challenged, he simply entered a helpless mode and concluded that all the early praise of his gifts was nonsense.
His early ease in learning and the praise that came with it proved to be a trap for Jonathan. Anyone who has studied in rabbinic academies knows how poor a predictor natural gifts often prove to be of eventual success mastery of religious knowledge, and how often are roshei yeshiva (deans) disappointed because they were captured by a student's natural gifts.
Fortunately, Dweck provides a good deal advice of what parents can do to help their children adopt a growth mind-set.
First, when they tell stories of successful people in our context Torah greats don't emphasize their preternatural gifts, but their dedication and hard work. Best of all, find examples of great Sages who did not stand out in their younger years for their outstanding gifts. (There are many.)
Second, when praising children, praise their effort and hard work. Don't tell them that their success is the product of their being so smart or some other natural ability.
Third, share with them all the scientific evidence that the brain is also a muscle and can be strengthened. Dweck reports on the significant improvement of low-achieving students from just reading an article entitled, "You can grow your brain."
One of her subjects, who was in the test group for Brainology, an interactive program to encourage a growth mindset, reported, "My favorite thing from Brainology is the neurons part where you learn something there are connections and they keep growing. I always picture that when I'm in school."
The implications of Dweck's typology of learning approaches, extend, as I said, far outside the formal educational context. Researchers have found, for instance, that workplace managers with a fixed mind-set are much less likely to welcome feedback from their employees. Others have found that the quality and longevity of relationships depends heavily on the mind-set of the partners.
For those who assume that human personality traits are basically fixed, working on problems in a relationship will often seem to be an exercise in futility. Those who assume that people can change and grow, however, are much more likely to express concerns to a partner in order to work on the relationship and find solutions.