Growth is all in your mind

By Evan Leahy

As a student, it can be easy to get bogged down in results, but a new approach to learning suggests your “mindset” is far more important to long-term success than any specific outcomes. Whatcom Community College’s Faculty Learning Community held a forum at Heiner Theatre April 14th to discuss the impact having a “growth mindset” can make on a person’s learning and accomplishments.

WCC English professor and Faculty Learning Community co-facilitator Justin Ericksen said “mindset is how you respond to challenges and difficulties,” adding that “a fixed mindset makes the teaching and learning process moot” and that this is “an effort to destigmatize the idea of failure.”

Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck is credited with developing and publicizing the mindset concept. In her TED Talk, “The New Psychology of Success,” Dweck says that, rather than avoiding challenges and mistakes, students with a growth mindset have been shown to “engage deeply. They process the error, they learn from it and they correct it.”

Ericksen says that outlooks on learning and development fall into one of two possible mindsets: that of the “fixed” mindset or that or the “growth” mindset. He says the primary question the Faculty Learning Community is trying to answer is “how do we ethically and critically foster, cultivate and assess growth mindset at the individual and institutional levels.”

The WCC Faculty Learning Community consists of co- facilitators Jordan Erickson, Kaatje Kraft, Ron Correll, Nathan Hall, Guava Jordan, Travis McEwen, Mary Lou Papich, Ines Poblet, Anna Wolff, and Jennifer Zovar.

Thursday’s event was open to the public and it’s intent, Ericksen said, was to “promote awareness, get students involved and reach the greater community.”

“Like all interesting ideas,” Ericksen says, “it’s complicated.”

Ericksen said that there was “a danger with buzzwords to reduce them down to ‘soundbites’ and taking the nuance and complexity out of them,” adding that these ideas are “context dependent” and that this was the reason such a broad and diverse array of faculty had been involved.

Possible pitfalls of incorrect application of the “mindset” outlook Ericksen stated included potentially focusing excessively on mindset while overlooking important academic content and the possibility of teachers placing blame on students’ mindsets instead of reexamining teaching methods.

Possible drawbacks aside, however, Ericksen says “I saw it as a crucially important and universally applicable element of education.” This idea of universal applicability was evidenced by a diverse group of featured speakers at the forum.

The idea that our mental capacities expand based on the demands we place on ourselves has been researched and written about in a number of other contexts supporting Dweck’s findings. Dr. Timothy Leary stated in his book released in 1988, Change Your Brain, that all human behavior is a game at which improvement is possible for those who simply recognize its possibility, but that “not understanding the game nature of behavior leads to confusion and eventual helplessness.”

In the same publication, Leary specifically emphasizes the important impact our own expectations and environment have to with learning and development, saying “if what we expect affects what happens in our brain, let us precisely program the suggestions our brain will realize,” adding that, “the brain is not a blind, reactive machine, but a complex, sensitive biocomputer that we can program.” While the focus of Change Your Brain and its related study was on developing and better expressing creativity, the idea that we only improve where we believe we can improve directly supports what Dweck is suggesting.

The forum featured five speakers from the larger WCC community. The first of which was Ernesto Garcia Guerra, a student who came to school after working for decades in manual jobs. He talked about the intimidating nature of coming to school from such a different environment and said there were huge changes in mindset that led to his success, adding “I feel like I could do anything right now.”

The event’s final speaker was Jodie Permen, also a student. Permen said she, too, had struggled academically in early life and that she “never imagined [she’d] be going to college, much less speaking to all of you,” addressing the audience.

Permen, now in her final quarter at WCC, said she’d struggled with perfectionism her entire life. She said that struggle had been something she avoided and that it “made me feel vulnerable,” adding that fear had often stood in her way.

“Real adult responsibilities” intervened and she “had to be willing to give up the perfection idea,” she said.

Permen said, recognizing the changes in her outlook, “I liked who I was becoming,” and thought “maybe this approach could be applied to college.”

Permen concluded her speech by stating that “growth is not comfortable,” highlighting that challenges and struggle can be seen as a sign of progress and something to be embraced.

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