‘What does intelligence mean?’ ‘Does it change?’ ‘What can change it?’ These are some questions I ask children when I meet them. And most times, what I get in response is stunned silence (I guess they do not meet many adults who want to know this) and then typically, ‘I don’t know…’, ‘I am not sure…’ followed by ‘Intelligence is to come first in class’ or ‘Intelligence is being best in studies.’
Most children believe, and I would say parents do too, that intelligence is something you are born with. The same is true for other attributes like creativity, athleticism or artistic ability. It is largely believed that you either have it or you don’t. It is a bit of genes and luck that decides whether you will be a loser or winner in life. Right?
Wrong! Carol Dweck from Stanford University has done decades of research on the groundbreaking concept she calls growth mindset (Mindset – The New Psychology of Success) to illustrate that what children need is not just good genes and luck but a growth mindset towards life. What is growth mindset and how does it differ from fixed mindset?
Fixed mindset refers to a belief that children have fixed skills and abilities. That their character, intelligence and creative ability is predetermined and cannot be changed. Accordingly, some children are good at some things and some children are not good at some things and it is pretty hard-wired and there is not much scope for stretching it. Therefore, we hear statements such as ‘he is intelligent and does not need to try,’ ‘he has low IQ and will not amount to much’.
Children internalise this approach and start defining themselves — ‘I am dumb’, ‘I am terrible at math’. Children raised on a diet of ‘you are the best’ will be too scared to try out new things and avoid failure. So though a child might love chess, she is scared of playing it because what if she fails and people find out that she is not best at everything? She is precariously holding on to her top position and wouldn’t be able to hop down and try something different, something that she may enjoy. She might go through life — school to college to job — always making the safest choice which will help her hold on to others’ approval.
On the other hand, growth mindset comes from a perspective that children (and adults) have skills, abilities and strengths that are flexible and are evolving. It comes from an underlying belief that each child might be wired differently but what we focus on grows. Therefore, a child whose skills in math are low can work hard and build them. The focus is on the process, the learning and curiosity rather than reaching excellence.
Dweck’s groundbreaking research indicated that the biggest marker for children’s success was the growth mindset. This has huge implications for the way we parent and teach our children. So what can we do to build this crucial life skill in our children?
Scaling is an effective instrument that we can use to help children keep track of their skill building. Suppose a child, let’s call him Varun, is struggling in math. We could start by asking him, ‘On a scale of 0 to 10 where do you think you are?’ To which Varun replies ‘3’ and you ask him, ‘Where would you like to be?’. He says ‘7’. You move forward by asking him, ‘So 7 is a goal and you are at 3 right now. What is one thing you need to do to move to 4?’ Varun thinks for sometime and says, ‘I need to practise more of percentage problems.’
For little children, scaling could be converted to a drawing of climbing ladders or mountains. Scaling could be done for different aspects like reading, math, attention, time management, organisational skills, motivation, football skills, dancing, friendship skills, etc. The most important thing is, of course, that the child chooses where he is, where he wants to be and how he is going to get there. It gives him a sense of ownership, a goal he is working towards. It prioritises action and an understanding that everything he wants to learn is a skill.
Ask, not tell
As Varun starts working on his math skills, rather than telling him what he needs to do, ask him what he thinks will work. ‘What time would you like to practise?’ ‘How long would you like to do it?’ ‘Would you prefer watching some cool videos on percentages?’ ‘What are you learning that you did not know before?’ ‘How can I help you?’ Let him work out his own pace and style of working at it. Children are wired to be curious and through our gentle questions, we keep lighting that spark that will keep them going forward.
Focus on the effort
As he gets down to practising math, focus on the effort and not the scores he gets in the tests and exams. ‘I see the way you have moved from 3 to 4 by sheer effort.’ That is why some of the most important questions you can ask are: ‘What new thing did you learn today? What mistake did you make that taught you something? What did you try hard at today?’
Walk the talk
Growth mindset is not just what you teach children. Children need to see us also walking the talk. They need to see us trying out new things, failing at it and working hard, growing and evolving. My children are aware of my struggles with public speaking and how hard I have worked at that skill to make it one of my strengths. So next time they tell me ‘I cannot cook’ or ‘I am not artistic’, they know the look I am going to give them!
At the end of it, through growth mindset, we are helping Varun build muscles of grit. Angela Duckworth has been researching grit for decades and in her book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, she comments, “To be gritty is to keep putting one foot in front of the other. To be gritty is to hold fast to an interesting and purposeful goal. To be gritty is to invest, day after week after year, in challenging practice. To be gritty is to fall seven times, and rise eight.”
We need to build the culture of grit in our homes and our schools. It is the growth mindset and grit that will determine children’s success in life. Not IQ, grades or talent. From us, they learn that adversity is an invitation to rise above and not give up. They also learn that life is not a sprint, but a marathon.
“It’s just not that I am smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” – Albert Einstein
(Shelja Sen is co-founder of Children First, a child & adolescent mental health institute, and author of Imagine: No Child Left Invisible; All You Need is Love: The Art of Mindful Parenting; Reclaim Your Life: Going Beyond Silence, Shame and Stigma in Mental Health. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)