Posts Tagged ‘mindset’

Being middle aged and not always remembering that at critical times I am prone to small injuries and other consequences of over-exerting myself.   And of course sitting in front of a computer for many hours doesn’t tend to help even when I do my best to stand and stretch regularly.  I’m also still ‘just’ middle aged and will prove that by not boring you with the details, but it’s pretty common for me to walk into yoga and let the teacher know that this or that has been strained so I’ll be “taking it easy” today.

I recently strained my back enough that I actually took a couple of weeks off from yoga (which is a pretty high bar for me).  So the first day back I used my normal line on the teacher and she said okay and everything was fine.  I suspect she kept a slightly closer eye on me during back bends and whatnot, and I did in fact take it easy on such poses.  But that was pretty much the end of it.  This morning, for whatever reason, I went a step further and asked the teacher what I could do to help with the specific issue I was having (new chair, more sitting in front of a computer, one particular muscle in my back was strained).   And  I received some wonderful advice about specific poses as well as the more general (and always useful) advice to keep my core tight and think about those muscles throughout the class – make that my intention for the day, so to speak.  And she helped with some hands on corrections during class.

That’s a pretty big bonus for just asking a polite question.  So why don’t I do that habitually?   Especially because I just spent 10 months feeling like a broken record.  Telling my high school students to please, please, please ask if they don’t understand something.  And using every technique I could come up with to re-enforce that message.  One might think that I would be better about taking my own advice.   It’s pretty darn good advice after all.

Well in this particular kind of circumstance hopefully I will in the future.  After all, I have proven that I can learn (if a bit more slowly than I would like).

But in the more general case, I think it comes back to the combination of mindset and general introversion – it takes a lot of energy for me to engage in that kind of conversation, so I need to keep in mind how pleasant it can be when it goes right.  And how much I can learn by asking questions.

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There’s an aspect of learning that I’ve been thinking about a lot as I attempt to reboot my own ability to learn.  I haven’t written about this yet though.  Not because it isn’t important.  In fact, I think it may be even more fundamental in some ways that the deliberate practice, the okay plateau, flow, and other concepts that I have spent some time one.  It’s also not new to me, I’ve worked with this concept for years as I coached younger engineers and butted my head against it in some unfortunate cases when managing more senior engineers.

The problem is I’ve never really had an easy way to talk about this concept.  It’s come up in a number of books that I’ve read about Talent and learning, but hasn’t been nearly as heavily referenced as either Ericcson’s 10,000 hours of deliberate practice or Csikszentmihalyi‘s Flow (P.S.) concepts.

So I was talking to my mom about this volunteer teaching gig that I’m training for and I mentioned the textbook that they’ve assigned (The First Days of School by Wong & Wong).  Her response was that she found the Wong’s stuff useful, but that I should really take a look at the work that Dr. Carol Dweck has done.  To which I said, “Dweck, that name sounds familiar” and immediately did a search of my notes to see that her name was languishing in my depressingly long list of “further research required”.  It turns out that she published a normal person consumable summation of her work as the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, which I promptly read.

So this concept that I’ve been trying to label as inborn talent vs. willingness to work hard or innate ability vs. stubbornness or any number of other kind of things finally has a nice clean label.  Okay, it’s had that label for quite some time, but now I have something to call it.

Here’s a quote from a 2012 interview of Dweck that sums up her definition of mindset:

In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.

One of the over-arching themes of the book is that people tend to have one mindset or the other and she goes into considerable depth about well-known athletes and business leaders that operate with a fixed mindset vs. a growth mindset.  And of course if you buy into the premise that a growth mindset is a healthier way to live and learn in general, then a decent part of the book is somewhat redundant.  But she does spend some time on how to put yourself into a growth mindset and how to use praise to put students into a growth mindset.

One of the really cool things that I think even Dweck understates in her book is that this mindset can change from task to task.  Most of the research that she quotes is done on a random set of people (they don’t try to group people by some general tendency towards a particular mindset) and they use some introductory statement to put one group into a fixed mindset and the other into a growth mindset.  One group will hear something like “This is a skill that only some people are good at, we’re giving you a test to see if you’re one of them” and the other group will get “Everyone can do this, we’re just observing some semi-related aspect of the exercise.”  The group that got the latter explanation will do measurable better than the group that got the first.  On a very wide variety of tasks.   So even if you (like me) have a bit more built in fixed mindset that you’d like to admit, you can chip away at this one step at a time.

And all this is made more important and relevant in my current endeavors because I will be teaching computer science to high school students.   When I decided to do this my biggest hesitation was exactly around the mindset issue, although I didn’t yet have that term.  Even though I’ve been struggling with it for years, I did somehow manage to slip into a predominantly fixed mindset learning mode of learning in my formative years.  This is especially ironic since (in case you missed it), it was my Mom that turned me on to Dweck’s work.  But one thing that fell very naturally into a growth mindset for me and I think is one of the reasons that I became undeniably good at it, was programming.  I believe that this was in large part because nobody around me knew how to program. So there was no one to judge how well I was doing (either in a positive or negative way) and put me in a fixed mindset.  I just plugged away at it until I could do more and more things, slipping into that crazy overlap between deliberate practice and flow that is quite possibly the reason for being.

So if the very lack of formal teaching in computer science is what got me into a place where I was able to excel as a programmer, what business do I have trying to teach that very skill?  I hope that the answer to that is to learn how to guide my students in a way that lets them achieve that same feeling of unlimited potential that I had as a teenager discovering the wonders of computers.  And I think that Dweck’s mindset concept will be a key part of how I do that.  Thanks for that, Mom.  As well as all of the amazing things you’ve taught me over the years.