The Jungle: Encouraging a Growth Mindset

July 3, 2012

By Lisa Hartwig

Lisa is the mother of 3 gifted children and lives outside of San Francisco.

When my oldest son was in 5th grade, he told me a story. He was in the jungle, swinging from vine to vine above a swamp infested with crocodiles. The teachers at his school placed the vines an appropriate distance apart, and he was successfully navigating the terrain. I, however, was moving the vines too far apart. He told me that if I kept moving these lifelines, he would fall into the waters below and be devoured by the crocodiles.

At the time he told me this story, I was pressuring him to put more effort into his schoolwork. He was daydreaming in class and making silly mistakes. He turned in papers with multiple misspellings, although he was a very good speller. He didn’t study for quizzes or even look through his text books when he had an open book test. According to the teachers, he was doing “fine.” I knew he was capable of more. If the teachers would not demand more from him, I would.

I “helped” him proofread his papers and check his spelling. I enrolled him in EPGY (Educational Program for Gifted Youth) for math. As he advanced through the program, he became increasingly upset. If he could not answer the questions, he cried. I insisted that he continue. I was making him miserable.

I realize now that his jungle metaphor illustrated a common problem for gifted students: he thought he was smart only if he could master a task easily. He viewed his intellectual ability as something static that he demonstrated by completing tasks quickly and with very little effort. By demanding that he push himself beyond his teachers’ expectations, I was threatening his status as a smart kid. How could he be smart if learning was hard?

My son had a fixed mindset. I learned this at a gifted learning conference in the Bay Area, where I heard Carol Dweck, author of the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, speak. According to Ms. Dweck, gifted students with a “fixed mindset” will see their intelligence as fixed at birth. Their goal is to demonstrate their intelligence. They do this by sticking to tasks they do well and avoiding challenges that might threaten their self-image. Since a “fixed mindset” limits their reach, the goal is to acquire a “growth mindset” in which students believe that intelligence can be developed and improved by working hard. Under the “growth mindset,” learning – rather than performance – is the ultimate goal. Failures are temporary setbacks giving the student a chance to learn.

My attempt at encouraging my son to perform at a higher level was clearly threatening his self-image as a smart kid. Luckily, we live near a school that excels at fostering the development of a growth mindset and serves gifted and talented students. We moved our son there in 6th grade. The school celebrates mistakes and focuses on the process of learning rather than the end product. I recall attending a Physics culmination where the students presented rollercoaster designs. Each student began his or her presentation with the many ways in which the initial design failed. For many of the students and parents, this was the most interesting part of the night. Math homework was often too difficult to complete, so the teacher would use class time to solve the problems and give credit for unsuccessful attempts. The right answer was worth one point out of many. The students received narrative evaluations, accompanied by rubrics, instead of grades, so they always had the opportunity to improve and knew where they should focus their efforts. An A+ no longer set the limit to their learning.

I stopped referring to my children as “smart.” They were hard workers and creative thinkers. They were risk takers. They repeatedly surprised me.

The biggest surprise for me is how this story ends. Next year, my son will be going to a university known for its intellectual rigor. He turned down an excellent school close to home in order to attend a school half way across the country for “true intellectuals who don’t mind working hard for their degrees.” At 17, he moved his own vines.

Have you encouraged a growth mindset in your child? What has your experience been? Please share in the comments section below!

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