With my attentional bias it seems like everyone is talking about mindsets. It reminds me of when I was a kid, and I found an old Ranchero parked in a shed on the farm. I really wanted it. Suddenly I started seeing Rancheros everywhere I went. I had a moment where I had to figure out if more people were into Rancheros or if I was just noticing them more.

This time I think it might be that everyone is talking about mindsets, and not just be me paying more attention. Salman Khan, of Khan Academy, of course, even talks with Carol Dweck, the author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success about her research here. It is written about with fantastic concision in Nurture Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. The underlying ideas seem to be informing everyone from blogging parents to basketball coaches. Schools are scrambling to figure out how to incorporate the new understanding into how they operate. At Sudbury schools, however, there isn’t much to change.

In the tiniest nutshell I can manage, a fixed mindset and a growth mindset are different ways to think about your own abilities. Do I have fixed abilities or can I develop them and grow? Dweck’s research says that your ability to learn, adapt and even your IQ is changed by which of those you believe. Spoiler Alert: The growth mindset is the better one.

Unpacking that a little, the willingness to learn new things, and all the mistakes that come along with it, is critical. The learner has to be willing to be wrong. From a growth mindset being wrong just means you learned something new.  It only means you didn’t have the information or skill at that time. From a fixed mindset being wrong cuts deeper. It means you are a failure.

In a growth mindset the emphasis is on the process not the product. In a fixed mindset the emphasis is on the product not the process.

It might seem like a small distinction at first, but it can make universes of difference.

Much of Carol Dweck’s book is devoted to coping with the problems of keeping a growth mindset inside of a system that treats people as fixed. I’m talking about schools. For example, we tend to think of grades as an indication of learning. But, grades are not just a by-product of learning in a system that rewards everyone from the students to the educators based on grades. The actual experience is more like “maybe some learning will come out of giving all these kids tests and grades.” Failing is high risk. You typically don’t get to try again. The point is most often to demonstrate to the people who control your learning that you remember something, product before process.

At Sudbury Schools failure is just part of the learning environment, it is a low-risk event. Students can pursue what they are interested in for as long as they are interested in it. And, they can fail until they get it, without being judged by anything other than the results. There are no grades. The students are trusted to assess themselves. Though in many Sudbury schools some assessment is available, and mandated assessments are done. Even then is it gamified, or more like earning a badge. It says the student has the skill, but the path to the skill is their own, process before  product.

A growth mindset is supported as a natural outcome of trusting kids to be interested in what’s around them and their ability to learn.