As soon as my partner Caroline and I decided to co-teach our class on growth mindset, I became excited about growth mindset as the solution to a myriad of global challenges. 
Someone with a growth mindset believes that their intelligence is not fixed, but instead can be improved with time and practice. Hence, people with growth mindsets do not shy away from a challenge and take constructive criticism very well. They are able to bounce back from setbacks and realize that failures do not define their worth as a person. Resilience and grit are both great byproducts of a growth mindset.

After researching growth mindset, I quickly became swept up in the idea that the concept could conquer all! I soon began to investigate its many applications. How can growth mindset be applied in development work? How can we apply growth mindset to our daily lives? How can I share growth mindset with my family and friends?

In my mind, growth mindset quickly became the golden key to conquering failure, maximizing potential, and even mitigating the negative effects of poverty on academic achievement (as found by a study done in Chile)!

While much of this might be  true, only when we were in front of the class teaching did I realize that we hadn’t asked ourselves several practical questions about growth mindset. All at once, we were being asked:

  • What if someone does not improve after putting in time and effort?”

  • “If someone is just really not talented at something, like singing or doing advanced calculus, are they supposed to keep trying?”

  • “ When does the assumed value of persistence become a waste of time?” 

  • “Can you even teach growth mindset to someone? Or can you simply teach someone about growth mindset and hope for the best?” 

Hmm… All good questions, right? Without having reflected enough on the limitations of our topic, I felt that I was suddenly unprepared to navigate these questions around growth mindset while I was teaching the class. However, questioning the limitations and challenges of growth mindset is crucial to understanding how the concept can fit into our lives and our work.

Upon further reflection of my lack of knowledge in these areas, I realized that acknowledging the downsides of a certain solution actually gives the idea, and the presenter, for that matter, more credibility. It allows us to find holes in our suggested solutions and proposed theories, and then find ways to understand and correct for them. 

While I remain an enthusiastic proponent of growth mindset, in the days and weeks after my teaching session,I have been able to more fully understand its strengths, weaknesses, and realistic applications. Perhaps if I had started out my quest to teach growth mindset with a better question I would have been more effective in understanding my concept and teaching it to others.

Instead of thinking: “Growth mindset is great and very applicable to our lives and our work. How many different ways can I show the class how awesome it is?” 
I could have thought: “Growth mindset is great, and I think it is very applicable to our lives and our work. When will growth mindset shine, and when is it limited?” 

This way, I don’t lose any of my enthusiasm; in both scenarios, I believe that growth mindset is great and applicable! However, in the second question, I am diving deeper into the strengths and weaknesses of the concept instead of simply thinking about (and teaching) it as a “one size fits all” solution. 

In fact, the importance of thinking about concepts critically fits very well with one of the larger takeaways from the practice of design thinking: the importance of reframing the problem. Reframing the problems that we wish to solve includes thinking about them in radically different ways, which can be done by changing our assumptions and altering our perspectives. 

Whether it be to increase personal preparation and understand limits, build credibility, or improve self-awareness, questioning and rethinking concepts is a critical step to achieving a deeper understanding of the concepts that we learn about and discuss. 

I have seen over the course of the semester that as you increase the number of angles from which you address a problem, your solution only becomes better. Perhaps, in recognizing the importance of critical thinking and exploring the nuanced nature of each concept, I have found a golden key after all.