Strengths Based vs. Growth Mindset

Lately I’ve had some cognitive dissonance regarding two ideas I like very much: a strengths based approach to learning versus a growth mindset approach. Whenever two seemingly disparate ideas clash, it is inevitable that the most useful way of thinking finds a way to combine and respect both. In a sense, these two ideas are really a reformulation of the “nature vs. nurture” conflict that has raged in behavioral science for so long.

I have written pretty extensively before on Growth Mindset, so I will only briefly summarize. Growth Mindset is the idea that the human brain is constantly making, strengthening, and fading connections based on experience. With “deliberate practice,” anyone can form strong neuronic connections over time. Many people make the mistake of limiting their own potential by saying to themselves statements like “I am just not a math person,” or “everyone else is so much better, there’s no point in trying.” You might check out my teacher website for some videos and more info. Also give Carol Dweck and Jo Boaler a Google.

On the opposite corner we have strengths-based psychology founded by Bertha Reynolds and later written about by Cliffton in the book “Strengths Finder.” In this schema, everyone has various strengths, some stronger than others, that can be cultivated. From there, a person has to decide how to spend their resources developing their strengths. There is a famous movie called “Rudy,” where an undersized football player with an oversized heart. He spent years getting rejected repeatedly, but never gave up. He went to every practice. He was first to arrive at the field, and last to leave. Finally, on the last game of his last year, he overcame the odds and scored the game-winning touchdown. It sounds like a heartwarming story until you think about the opportunity cost. Rudy was obviously tenacious. What if he had devoted those thousands of hours to something that had actually used his strengths?

I struggled with this while teaching, both looking at myself and at my students. With a long story short, I realized that teaching in a secondary environment did not play to my strengths. After long reflection, I also settled on the idea that virtually all students have the capacity to learn mathematics at a very high level, barring extraordinary and severe learning disabilities. With careful guidance, feedback, and motivation, any student could theoretically be successful through calculus, maybe higher. There’s also different math like topology (the study of the structure of space) or group theory (the formalization of symmetry) that students don’t even get exposed to. Whether students actually succeed in math has more to do with sour experiences in school, messages of fixed mindset, self motivation, and poor feedback.

Am I being inconsistent and selective about my views of my own experience teaching and of the experiences of my students learning math?  This is where the cognitive dissonance begins.  In the end, the strengths based and growth views are both valid, but limited.

One way to reconcile these two schema might be to examine two core ideas in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers:  the “10,000 hour rule” and “thresholds.”  The 10,000 hour rule basically says that it takes 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice”–practice that constantly pushes your skill set as much as possible, often under the guidance of a mentor–to become an expert at something.  A threshold, on the other hand, is a minimum requirement of a trait in order to be successful.  Think of basketball.  Height is an advantage.  If you are 5’6″, it almost doesn’t matter how much you practice–you’re probably not going to make it to the NBA (only a few have ever done it in history).  If you look at two people who are 6’5″, however, then all of the sudden how much they practice makes a huge difference.  In basketball, there is a certain height–a threshold–where height stops mattering so much and other factors start to matter more, like dribbling and shooting ability.  In the book, Gladwell suggests that there is a threshold for IQ in many intellectual endeavors.  There is a huge advantage to those seeking a Nobel Prize who have an IQ of 130 vs. 110, but a substantially smaller advantage for someone of IQ 150 vs 130.  There are also lots of issues with IQ as a biased metric that isn’t actually fixed, which plays to the growth mindset schema.

I might think of growth mindset as aligning with the 10,000 rule and strengths-based psychology aligning with thresholds.  People have an incredible capacity to grow and learn, but people also have various traits that predispose them to reaching certain thresholds for certain skills more easily.  To be efficient, one should devote resources (time, energy, money, etc.) towards growing in ways that align with raw talent and strength.  I could probably devote a lot of resources towards interacting with people in a way that is out of character for me, and I could probably get pretty good at schmoozing with new acquaintances, putting on performances, and making small talk on the phone or at large parties.  But it would be miserable.  And I probably couldn’t get much better than average.  The tricky part here is that people’s formative experiences are so important in shaping their strengths, so it’s not useful to limit children too early in deciding what their strengths are.  Most people who say, “I’m not a math person” made the decision to think of themselves that way far too young as the result of poor experiences.  If their experiences had been different, then they would probably think differently.  If changing experience changes the outcome, then the behavior is not a matter of “nature.”


PS–This article picks apart some aspects of the 10,000 hour rule, showing that is does make a big difference, but not as big as some might think.


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