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Vol. LXI, No. 35
 
Wednesday, August 29, 2007
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Stanford Researcher to Share Latest Psychology With PRS Teachers

Linda Arntzenius

As students prepare to start school next week, Princeton Regional School's teaching staff will attend a convocation designed to get rid of rigid thinking and promote strategies for success.

Carol S. Dweck, a leading researcher in the field of student motivation, will share her research with district personnel at the high school on Tuesday, September 4.

The Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University will suggest ways in which educators can help students positively enjoy challenges rather than be overwhelmed by them.

Ms. Dweck, whose research suggests that motivation is the key to student achievement, will introduce the latest findings in psychology as the keynote speaker at two staff development sessions: on Tuesday morning, to the faculty of John Witherspoon Middle and Princeton High Schools, and on Tuesday afternoon, to the faculty of the district's four elementary schools.

"Current research has revealed so much about how the brain works and how humans, especially children and adolescents, learn," said Judith A. Wilson, Superintendent of Schools. "As educators, we need to ground our approaches to teaching and learning in ways that embrace the understanding of brain plasticity and theories of motivation."

A leading expert in motivational and developmental psychology, Ms. Dweck has discovered in more than 20 years of research that the human mindset shapes optimistic or pessimistic outlooks, goals, attitudes toward work, relationships, and child rearing, and ultimately predicts whether or not individuals fulfill their potential.

Ms. Dweck has examined the self-conceptions people use to structure their self understanding and guide their behavior. "My research looks at the origins of these self-conceptions, their role in motivation and self-regulation, and their impact on achievement and interpersonal processes," she states on the Stanford University website.

According to Ms. Wilson, Ms. Dweck's research has been directly applied to teaching situations.

"We need to explicitly teach students the basic tenets of this research so that there are no messages about 'fixed potential' or limited capacity," said Ms. Wilson.

Successful Mindset

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (Random House, 2006), Ms. Dweck's most recent book, contends that each person has either a "fixed mindset" or a "growth mindset." If you have the former, you view your talents and abilities as given and static. In other words, set in stone.

If you have the latter, you see yourself as fluid, a work in progress.

With a "growth mindset," an individual is more open to change and opportunity and hence to success.

Ms. Dweck believes that while mindset unfolds in childhood and adulthood, it can be changed at any stage of life. She helps parents, teachers, and coaches — those who are instrumental in determining children's mindsets and hence their future success or failure — focus on promoting the "growth mindset".

"My research has shown that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value."

Ms. Dweck's book, Self-Theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development (Psychology Press, 2000), based on research with children and young adults, examines adaptive and maladaptive cognitive-motivational patterns. It is in these patterns that, according to Ms. Dweck, self-theories originate. And these patterns have consequences not only for individual achievement, social relationships, and emotional well-being, but also for society.

Her findings question effective practices for maximizing children's self-confidence and learning. She examines the ways in which people work and why they sometimes function well and sometimes behave in ways that are self-defeating or destructive.

"The hallmark of successful individuals is that they love learning, they seek challenges, they value effort, and they persist in the face of obstacles," she has said in an online interview with Education World (cited on the Princeton Regional Schools website: www.prs.k12.nj.us).

According to Ms. Dweck, "There is no relation between students' abilities or intelligence and the development of mastery-oriented qualities. Some of the very brightest students avoid challenges, dislike effort, and wilt in the face of difficulty. And some of the less bright students are real go-getters, thriving on challenge, persisting intensely when things get difficult, and accomplishing more than you expected.

"Students who are mastery-oriented think about learning, not about proving how smart they are. When they experience a setback, they focus on effort and strategies instead of worrying that they are incompetent.

"Being mastery-oriented is about having the right mindset."

Ms. Dweck suggests that teachers should focus on student effort rather than on abilities, praising result-achieving strategies, rather than student intelligence — a practice that can backfire by making students overly concerned with how smart they are and overly vulnerable to failure.

Since sustained effort over time is the key to achievement, Ms. Dweck advocates more focus on the rewards of achieving difficult tasks.

Rather than praising students for doing well on easy tasks, teachers should teach students to relish hard challenges. They should transmit the joy of struggling to find strategies that work.

"Too many students are hung up on grades and on proving their worth through grades," Ms. Dweck has said. "Grades are important, but learning is more important."

Superintendent Wilson has described Ms. Dweck's work as "critical to our greater understanding of the complex work of teaching and learning."

"As educators, we send powerful formal and informal messages to students each day about how their potential is viewed and how their capacity for learning can or cannot be shaped," said Ms. Wilson. "All too often motivation can be regarded as a fixed, innate, or internal force only. As a result, teachers may underestimate their role in students' motivation for learning."

After 30 years of research, Ms. Dweck has said that she is still impressed by the power of motivation. "Motivation is often more important than your initial ability in determining whether you succeed in the long run."

"By motivation, I mean not only the desire to achieve but also the love of learning, the love of challenge, and the ability to thrive on obstacles. These are the greatest gifts we can give our students."

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