Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Carol Dweck, The Growth Mindset, Labels, and the Messages We Send To Children

I've been reading up on Carol Dweck's ideas on the growth mindset. Here's a quick definition of the fixed and growth mindsets (this is from TES magazine).

The "Fixed" Mindset

A fixed mindset is the belief that a person's intelligence, creative ability and talent are fixed at birth and cannot be significantly changed. Carol Dweck argues that individuals with this view are reluctant to take on challenges because they see failure as a sign of weakness and lack of ability.

The "Growth" Mindset

A growth mindset is the belief that intelligence, creative ability and talent can change. According to Professor Dweck, people with such a mindset believe they can learn from failures and improve their performance through persistence and a willingness to try different approaches.

(Here's a useful diagram illustrating the difference between fixed and growth mindsets.)

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy 

As someone who has saturated their life with CBT and thinks about much of life with CBT tools, I find it easier myself to think about Dweck's ideas in terms of the CBT model well established in my head.  Actually, instead of "fixed mindset" I find it easier to get my head around the term "fixed labeling". I think about:

Fixed labels and the messages they send to my daughter.

A Message to a Child 

I threw a ball toward my daughter's head and expected it to just bounce off her head but, to my surprise, she headed it well - she jumped up and then powered it away. To that I responded:

"You're a good headerer!"

That made me think about the way I communicate with my daughter when she can achieve a task. I realised I'd used a label and I found myself thinking about the growth mindset and then asking myself: What does this way of talking to my daughter achieve? If my daughter is to go on improving her heading skills (only if she thinks this stuff is important though!) how does awarding her a label "good headerer" help her? Does it help her progress anywhere?


So I thought it might be more productive  to acknowledge  her success using the word "can", which  seems like it could emphasise the fact that she has achieved what she has done through effort:

"You can head the ball!"

There is greater emphasis there on the action than the label. It feels as though it might also stress that she is responsible for her success at heading.

Breaking it down 

Is it constructive to break "can head the ball" into the component parts of the action? I could look at the sequence of actions that make up the action of heading the ball:

Can jump/can connect with the ball/can apply force to the ball.

So, if she wants to improve her heading, or was having some problem with her heading, I could focus on one element at a time to improve it. There wouldn't be the black-and-white thinking of "you can either head the ball or you can't". 

A Can't 

Well, I'm not wanting little one to think she lives in some cloud cuckoo land where she does everything right! I thought maybe it could be constructive to tag a "can't" onto the cans to send the message that there's always scope for improvement. This I've done in the "But can't" form:

Can jump/can connect with the ball/can apply force to the ball - but can't do that with great power.


Can jump but can't jump high/can connect/can apply force to the ball

There are, of course, always many things you can't do in life. The things you can do are heavily outnumbered by the things you can't. You also always have the chance to improve something you can already do. There's always the option to set another goal. It's worth planting a seed and sending the message  that although you can head the ball, it's not job done - there are more mountains to climb (if you choose to). Even a task at which you would say you have found mastery there will always be some way to improve your skill, so I'd conclude that digging out can'ts is a good habit.

Adding Can'ts

It doesn't take too much creativity to tag on the can'ts. Thinking of adverbs or adjectives can usually trigger a thought:

You can kick the ball but can't do it powerfully.
You can kick the ball but can't do it into the air.
You can head the ball but can't direct it to a team mate.

If you can't do the thing at all 

If she couldn't head the ball at all (I'm defining this here as "her head didn't make any contact") then there's the possibility of listing the can't first, and then listing some cans that are components of the journey towards the successful heading of the ball. 

You can't head the ball, but you can position yourself, you can see the ball, you can jump.

Again, it's not about the black-or-white thinking of either being able to do a task or not. There's always a degree to which you can do any task and components of the whole task which can be worked on individually.


It's constructive to look at the degree to which an action thought of as "can't"can be done to a degree - even if it's to the smallest degree.

You can't power the ball/ You can hit the ball with a degree of force, even though it's not strong yet.
You can't tackle/You can make yourself a nuisance by going close to an opponent and getting in the way.
You can't run fast/ You can run, you're getting faster,  and you'll go on getting faster.

Can, Like, Want, Know

"Can" seems to be a good word to use but I think these others words can be thrown into the mix to use the way can is above:

Like/Don't like
Want/Don't want
Know/Don't know

Like/Dislike: If my daughter didn't like heading the ball because it hurts her head when she connects then it could be constructive to word this as "You don't like heading the ball". That cuts to the problem and gives us something to work on - the fear, and the huge leap of touching a ball hurtling through space toward your head - much more than if we'd gone down the fixed label route of saying, "You can't head the ball!"

Want/Don't want: Seems like a constructive couple of words to throw in that might suggest goal setting. "You want to learn how to take corners". "You don't want to take corners because you don't have the power to kick that hard."

Know/Don't know. Also constructive. Implies that the knowledge is there, but hasn't been converted to a can yet. "You know how to take a penalty but can't add the power yet." Or "You know that as a goalkeeper you have to stop the ball with your hands but aren't fast enough yet".

The idea of balancing the sentences - in the same way as with can/can't above - appeals:

"You like to outrun an opponent but don't like it when you get tripped up."

I'm sure there will be more words I will find that can be used positively in this way.


I use the awareness of "are a" and "are" to locate when I've used a label.

"Are a"

The words "Are a" might indicate when I'm using a label and when it might be a good time to switch to using the approaches above. An example would be, if my daughter dribbles the ball well I might say, "You are a footballer!" But better alternatives might be: "You can dribble the ball well" or "You can dribble the ball well but can't pass to team mates" or "You can dribble the ball well but can't run fast while you do it".


The word "Are" might indicate when I'm using an adjective (which can also function like a label). If my daughter scores a goal I might say "You are skillful!" when "You can hit the target with the ball" might send a better message.


The words "be careful about not damaging a child's confidence!" pop into my head when I think about the ideas above and I don't know what kind of balance between cans and can'ts would nurture confidence or damage it. But is thinking in that "you are either confident or you are not" way a mistake in itself? Should there be one overall label of "confident or not confident" or is it constructive to break confidence itself down into component parts? I have to admit I don't know!

The idea of "can't listing" appeals but I don't know if that would be detrimental to a learner's confidence. As I said above, there are unlimited things you can't do, but also unlimited ways to improve on something you can do. What's the right balance? No idea!

The "Good girl"/"Bad Girl" thing

This is related. I don't say either of these. I prefer to use "like", as in, "I like that!" rather than declare "You're a good girl!" Similarly, instead of saying, "That's good!" about something, I would - if I'm not using the approaches above - prefer to say "I like that!" to indicate it's more my personal opinion than a declaration of worth.  It always seems like arrogance to me to assume you're the one who gets to declare to a child if something is good or not. 

Part Two: Types of Skipping

"I can't skip!" my daughter proclaimed after trying to skip for all of twenty seconds. I kind of figured that the word "skipping" acts as a kind of label to her and she has this concept in her head of "perfect skipping", the thing that must be achieved if one will be able to say they can skip!

As "normal skipping"  is beyond her ability at the moment I thought a good approach might be to kill the idea of this one form of perfect skipping and invent many types. Perhaps with increasing difficulty.

So to get her used to the idea of jumping over the rope I could invent:

Line-skipping: The rope is put on the floor and she just has to step over the rope.

Yoyo-skipping: The rope is put on the floor and she has to jump over the rope, then backwards over the rope.

Triangle-skipping: Mummy and daddy hold the rope and all she has to do is the jumping while mum and dad twirl the rope.

Slow-motion-skipping: Self explanatory; the "normal" skipping process, all done by herself, but done slowly.

NB: The hardest part for her was flipping the rope over from behind her to get it over her head. How to get round that? I think that sliding a light tube over a section of the rope could add some weight and make it easier to flip the rope over. Maybe. That could be called something like tube-skipping. (I need to experiment with that.)

With the football problem above - that of my daughter being scared to head the ball - the way ahead there could be to build up the difficulty by inventing different kinds of ball-heading:

Push-head: You hold the ball against her forehead and she just has to push it away. Easy!

Inch-drop-head: You drop the ball just once inch for her to power it away.

The still-head: Her task is to stand perfectly still while you throw the ball at her head from a increasing distances.


Summary: Here's a tl; dr for people who were too lazy to read the article (yes, that should be: people who don't like to read long articles)

1) Instead of applying a label when a task is achieved, use the verb "can".

2) Think of tasks - both those achieved or not achieved - in terms of cans and can'ts. List as many cans and can't as you like instead of using one "inert" label.

3) Invent a simpler form of a task that a child can do, and give it a name.


So these are thoughts on the Carol Dweck growth mindset ideas from the perspective of someone who's done a lot of CBT.

* It would seem that in the writing of this article I have invented the word "headerer".

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Why haven't aliens tried to contact us?

It's the big question: Why haven't aliens tried to contact us? Here's a really good read:

The Fermi Paradox

I can't help thinking - maybe it wouldn't be too hard for aliens to sabotage human progress to stop us from reaching them (looking at our track record I wouldn't really blame them). The other day I was in a supermarket and I spotted a sign that said something along the lines of, "We can't wait to see how happy you are when you see your savings at the checkout!" Where are these petty goals coming from? Why are we losing sight of the "big pictures"? Soon I'll be posting my thoughts on the subtle, simple ways that aliens could sabotage human progress so that it keeps our minds on the petty stuff.

Friday, 1 May 2015

Religion and the deep stuff

I lost my niece a couple of months ago. At the age of twenty. Terrible. It made me think about lots of heavy stuff. I came across this:

Religion for the nonreligious.

I found myself asking this question: If I could look at electrons with an electron microscope and then by some means magnify the image a billion more times, what would I see?

It occurred to me that I'd never asked that question once in my life, all 45 years. A simple question, but I'd never thought to ask. How many other simple questions are there that I haven't asked? How many simple questions are there that my brain can't even begin to conceptualise?

How can we come up with answers for anything when we don't even know the questions?

"You can't reason someone out of a position they didn't reason themselves into"

Or can you?

How do I find out what positions I haven't reasoned myself into, and how do I challenge those positions?

Friday, 24 April 2015

Thinky Meanderings

This is a blog for my brain farts and thought experiments!

I'll be talking about...