What is education for? Is it for pouring facts and formulas into students’ heads, or is it for creating learners?
At its best, was the U.S. educational system known for producing memorizers and test-takers or was it known for producing innovators?
I think we can agree that we want to create learners and innovators—people who seek challenges, stretch to learn new things, and bounce back from (or are even energized by) setbacks. If this is what we want, we are going about it in exactly the wrong way. High stakes testing may in fact be creating the very opposite in our students.
My research shows that an environment that emphasizes evaluation and testing creates a fixed mindset. That is, it sends the message that intellectual abilities are fixed and that the purpose of school is to measure them. Students come to see school as the place to look smart and, above all, not look dumb—not a place to create and learn. A fixed mindset also breeds low effort (because students believe that high effort advertises low ability,) and poor reactions to difficulty (because they believe that difficulty also reveals low ability.) These are not the habits of people who achieve or innovate in adulthood.
Growth mindset environments, in contrast, portray intellectual abilities as skills that are acquired not inborn, and put the focus on the learning process. When students are taught a growth mindset—when they are taught that every time they stretch themselves to learn hard, new things, their brains make new connections and over time they can get smarter—their motivation to learn increases, their desire for hard tasks increases, and their resilience in the face of difficulty increases. Even their achievement test scores increase—because they want to learn, not because they drilled for the test all year. Plus, when students are taught a growth mindset, girls stay in math and students from underserved minority groups earn higher grades.
Now, everybody’s talking about Finland, the country that nearly tops the charts in reading, science, and math on PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment,) a standardized test given to 15-year-olds around the world. But guess what? They don’t really care. Here’s what a representative from their Ministry of Education says: “We are not much interested in PISA. It’s not what we are about.” Instead he says, “We prepare children to learn how to learn, not how to take a test.”
Quote after quote from educators in Finland communicate a growth mindset and the idea that all children, no matter how much they may now be struggling, can master difficult material. The universally shared motto of Finnish educators is “Whatever it takes.” As Smithsonian magazine reports, if one method fails, teachers consult with their colleagues to try something else. And it works. Out of every country in the world, Finland has the smallest gap on PISA between the students at the top and the students at the bottom.
To be sure, Finland has worked hard to increase the prestige of teachers, heighten their selectivity, and give teachers extensive preparation and support, and these are certainly factors in the Finnish miracle. But my money is on the growth mindset as a key ingredient. Finnish educators recognize that a focus on growth and learning is critical not only for success in school but also for success in today’s wildly unpredictable world.
Educator Milton Chen tells of a colleague who was in India, when an Indian educator questioned her about the American practice of high-stakes testing. As she explained the policy, the Indian educator said simply, "Here, when we want the elephant to grow, we feed the elephant. We don't weigh the elephant."
Have we as a country confused weighing with feeding? I believe we have and in the process we have undermined young people’s desire to learn and their capacity to innovate. It’s time to rebuild the growth mindset culture, with its emphasis on tackling the unknown to grow our abilities and discover new things. This is what made America for so long the hotbed of creativity and innovation.
Carol Dweck is the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.
All statements and opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or NBC News.