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“Growth mindset.” It’s not a term that is used in my home-educating circles, and I personally didn’t know anything about it, so I had to make a choice: Do I think that I am a failure for not knowing what that is, or is this an opportunity to learn about something? (I’m actually giving you the punchline to a little joke here. If you get the joke, then you’re really smart; if not, you’ve proven you lack superiority. . . . Okay, maybe not—but hang in there with me while I explain the humor.)
What is growth mindset? It is a belief that views failure as an opportunity for growth instead of evidence of low intelligence and serious deficiency. Often growth mindset is contrasted with “fixed mindset.” Fixed mindset is the assumption that people are unchanging and unchangeable in their character, intelligence, and skills. For those of us who are visual learners, imagine someone failing at a certain thing. How do they react? People with a growth mindset see their failure as a seed planted in good soil, while fixed mindset people see it as another tattoo immortalizing their defeats. (If your family is like mine, one child lives with the seeds, another with the tattoos!)
So, I hope the humor is now somewhat evident. Folks who have a growth mindset would not be upset if they didn’t know what that term meant; they would not consider themselves deficient or lacking. Folks with a fixed mindset would assume that their lack of understanding was proof they didn’t have, and couldn’t gain more, intelligence.
To be fair, this concept goes beyond optimism and pessimism to include personality traits, parenting and teaching methods, and especially the research that sees how these mindsets are set in place at very early ages.
For home educators, we can see how this relates to one of our fundamental principles—namely, that education is not about learning what to learn but learning how to learn. We understand that the pedagogy of the twentieth century has idolized learning very specific things at very specific ages at specific grade levels between preschool and college. In contrast, home educators have embraced the framework of teaching our children that learning is a joy and a skill. When a thing is learned is not nearly as important as being prepared to properly, fully, and wisely assimilate information when the mind and heart are ready.
Psychologist Robert Sternberg focuses on growth mindset in his research. Another prominent voice in growth mindset research and publication is Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University. In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck relates research conducted with adolescent children examining how mindsets are formed early in life. After a test, the children were praised in one of two ways. The first way praised their ability: “Wow, you got [this many] right. That’s a really good score. You must be smart at this.” The other way praised their effort: “Wow, you got [this many] right. That’s a really good score. You must have worked really hard.” (Moment of reflection: Which way do you praise your children?)
What is remarkable is what happened next. When the same children were given a more difficult test on which no one did particularly well, the children praised for their ability thought they were now suddenly lacking in intelligence and giftedness. The children praised for their effort thought they had to put in more effort the next time; failure didn’t mean being less smart. (And unsurprisingly, the first set of children had less enjoyment than the latter set.)
These results ring true to many home-educating families because we believe that education is not about producing a product but nurturing a soul. Product-based education is convinced that if the product does not perform on time, in the expected manner, for the necessary length of time, then the product is deficient, damaged, and inferior. (Food for thought: What do we do with a product we purchase at the store that does not perform?) Nurturing-the-soul education is convinced that the person matters more than the product, that the goal of education is wisdom not merely commodities, that the shape and function and outcome of the individual is in the hands of the Master potter. We are the work of His hands (see Isaiah 64:8; Romans 9:20).
One particularly insightful application of growth mindset concerns people’s relationships. Dweck writes that a person with a growth mindset realizes that his or her partner, self, and relationship can grow and change, but a person with a fixed mindset think that the relationship must being instantaneously and perfectly compatible, like a fairy tale forever.
When relationships are seen through a lens of growth instead of a lens of fixed perfection, many healthy avenues open up ahead of us. Consider how we can build our homes into gardens of Christian experience with these traits:
- Forgiveness: This is not for the fixed or perfect. Forgiveness conveys love, encourages reconciliation, and fosters a community of people who are working together. (See Ephesians 4:32; 1 Timothy 6:12.)
- Learning: Isn’t it true that faith is a journey of instruction and discovery? Let Proverbs 1:5; Colossians 1:10; and 2 Peter 1:8 lay upon your hearts and minds for a while!
- New life in Jesus: Are we to stay static? Hardly! We are to grow up in every way into Christ, growing into salvation (see Ephesians 4:15 and 1 Peter 2:2).
We will never know everything about everything. This does not make us inferior or inadequate. Rather, we are “transformed by the renewal of [our] mind, that by testing [we] may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).
Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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