• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Can a College Have a Growth Mind-Set?

The ability to get stronger.


October 11, 2017

Carol Dweck’s distinction between a fixed mind-set and a growth mind-set has become a popular way to look at teaching. I’m wondering if it might also help in looking at colleges as institutions.

The short version of the distinction is that the “fixed” mind-set assumes that intelligence or ability is unchanging and given; either you have it or you don’t. A “growth” mind-set assumes that ability is like a muscle that gets stronger with use. The distinction matters because students who believe in the fixed mind-set will take struggle as a sign that they’ll never learn something, but believers in the growth mind-set will recognize that struggle is a part of learning, just as resistance makes muscles stronger. The former will lead to early surrender, but the latter is likelier to lead to persistence and eventual success.

At the level of teaching and learning, I’m a fan of Dweck’s idea. I grind my teeth whenever I hear someone say “I’m not a math person” in the same sense in which they might say “I’m not a Lutheran.” Yes, math comes more easily for some people than others, but I’m not sure there’s such a thing as a “math person,” at least in the sense the term is often used.

I’m struck, though, that many educators who embrace a growth mind-set in their own classes adopt a fixed mind-set when looking at their institution. People who can roll with the punches in one setting become brittle Platonists in another.

Without naming any names, I’ll just say that I’ve had multiple discussions about this new proposal or that one in which my interlocutor, always someone smart and experienced, replies with a peremptory “oh, that would never work.” (Or its close cousin, “that would never work here.”) It has happened often enough that I’m starting to react as if they claimed not to be a math person.

The issue isn’t about disagreement, either; I’ve been wrong before, and confronted on it before. I don’t have the same visceral reaction to “I don’t think so because…” or “but wouldn’t this other thing work even better?” Those are par for the course. It’s the shoot-from-the-lip dismissal that rankles.

Institutionally, a growth mind-set would involve an ethic of experimentation, and some level of tolerance for failure. It would work on an iterative model, in which a department might try three things for a while, keep the one that worked, junk the other two, and replace the other two with two more to see how they work. At any given moment, something would be failing somewhere, but over time, the wins would accrue.

Admittedly, that can be a tall order. It involves trusting that she who owns a failed experiment won’t be thrown under the bus. The institution would need enough resources to be able to afford some glitches. And at a really basic level, it would involve the honesty to admit when something hasn’t worked. None of those is universal.

But over time, I can’t help but think that the benefits to institutions would be similar to the benefits for students. If initial struggle is taken as an inevitable step in the process, rather than confirmation of foreordained failure, then we might actually get to the good part of the learning curve. Over time, students would benefit from more effective colleges, and faculty would benefit both from a more effective college and from the real sense of excitement that starts to spread when something is making a material difference.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a college with a growth mind-set? If you have, what made it work? If it once had a growth mind-set and later lost it, what drove it away?


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