Cognitive Enablers, Metacognition, Motivation

I Am

I have written a number of articles about Dweck’s mindset theory. From it, we gain great insights into how we can have an immense effect on how our students think about themselves. People believe their labels. Is there a broader application?

What about the labels we apply to ourselves at work or at play? I am the best salesperson. I am the greatest leader. I am a good manager. I am gorgeous. I am… I am… I am…

What does the effect of “I am” have on us? Just as important, what is the effect of “You are” on others? You are a great salesperson. You are a fantastic leader. You demonstrate great problem-solving skills. What we hear is “I am”.

What difference does this make? What if I am a brilliant teacher? What if I am an expert in The Science of Learning? What difference does it make?

Does anyone remember the story of Billy Beane? Billy was a baseball player who was brilliant. He was a natural. He had talent. He was everything that made baseball great. He was. To him, it was “I am…” Whatever happened to Billy Beane?

How can you improve on something when you “are”? When you are a natural, you are what you are. Beane was going to be the modern equivalent of Babe Ruth – arguably the best baseball player in the world. He bombed out – big time. In the big leagues, he crashed. Why? Because when you are, you just are. How can you change what you are?

When you a natural leader, people should just follow you. As a great salesperson, you just sell. As the smartest in the class, you just are. As the story of Billy Beane unfolds, do we see ourselves? As the pressure intensifies, do we crumble? Do we expend so much energy just protecting what we are that we forget how we got there? We got there because of what we worked at.

Mindset theory tells us that there are two types of mindsets – fixed or growth. As soon as I am something, I am fixed. If I am a brilliant salesperson then I am there. With a growth mindset, we never arrive. What we do is strive. We use every opportunity to learn and grow. We are where we are because of all the hard work that we have put in to get there. Fixed mindset says “I am something” while a growth mindset says “I am working at something”.

In order to use mindset theory for the benefit of your students, your institution, your company, or your life, you need to work to build up your metacognitive skills. You need to gain an insight into yourself. Think about different areas of your life and ask yourself if you have stopped yourself by becoming an “I am…”? Without recognizing this within ourselves, we can’t really begin to help others with their mindsets. Once we gain the insight that says that I need to stop stopping myself with a fixed label, we can begin to grow again and realize more of our own potential. It is not that you are a great teacher, it is that you are working to be a better teacher.

The most limiting aspect of critical thinking is the willingness to self-correct. This was Billy Beane. He already was baseball, so what else could be become? I am a great teacher (leader, salesperson, actor, programmer…) so why do I need to consider different teaching (or whatever) approaches? The unwillingness to self-correct is both a sign of a fixed mindset and a clear demonstration of a lack of critical thinking skills. I will use lecturing as an example because I know higher education best. I am sure that there are fixed thinking examples in every field, and as you read this, you can consider examples both within your field and within yourselves – unless you already are something, which often blinds you to your own ability.

In the field of higher education, lecturing is the most widely used method of teaching in the world – by a considerable margin. This, in spite of the fact that there are, literally, thousands of research studies telling us that it is the least effective way of learning that is in widespread use. Why is it so widely used? Why is it still the method of choice for hundreds of thousands of, otherwise, brilliant people? Fixed mindset.

I am a great lecturer, and so these studies don’t apply to me (I can’t tell you how often I have heard that). I am a good teacher. I know what I am doing. I am whatever. In other words, “I am” something and there is no need for me to consider something different.

We give awards for being a great teacher, salesperson, leader, actor… We explicitly reinforce fixed mindsets in virtually every endeavor. We tell students, through grades, that they are something. Instead of recognizing their growth (and potential), we fix them with a scale. Even our top students become fixated (fixed mindset) on being an “A” grade student. Being smart. Being gifted. All of which stop them from growing. They become fixated on maintaining their label.

The work Dweck did with the middle school children is heartbreaking. Two groups doing difficult problems that they were all able to get correct. One group became the “You must all be really smart to be able to do this” group, while the other group became the “You must have worked really hard to get all these right” group. The smart group lied about their scores and wanted the same level of challenging or easier problems in order to maintain their “smart” fixed label while the working group was honest about their achievements and wanted problems that were more challenging as a follow-up. Fixed or growth. It is up to us.

We have to begin by throwing away the self-imposed limitations of “I am”, and then we can begin to make a difference to those around us. First, you have to address yourself. If you are a good leader, you can remind yourself how much work it has taken to get there and how you can keep working in order to get even better. If you are a good salesperson, you can remind yourself how much work it has taken to get there and how you can keep working in order to get even better.

Once you address your own fixed mindset, you can begin to effect those around you. If you have a manager, you can begin to make them better by reminding him or her how hard they must work to be a good manager. If you have salespeople, you can recognize their hard work instead of rewarding them for what they are. If you have students, you can move away from fixating on grades and recognize the work that a student is putting in. Recognize their growth and potential and not what they are.

At the very least, we have to stop thinking “I am” or “you are” and start recognizing that I have worked really hard to get here or you must have worked really hard to get where you are.

Stop the “I am”s.

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