Compassion and the Social Implications of a Growth Mindset

One of the “in” concepts in education today is “growth mindset.” Carol Dweck, a researcher and the author of the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, first introduced the term to many people. A growth mindset is opposite a fixed or stagnant one, one that says your intelligence or ability to learn or emotional nature is set and irreversible. Instead, a growth mindset says effort pays off. You can change; you can improve your intellectual abilities. It pays off not only in education but also business, relationships, sports. I agree with this perspective. And it’s not new.


When I studied psychology in the 1960s, I was told that brain cells do not regenerate and by the time you’re a young adult, the brain is set. Since then, neuroscience has shown that new brain cells can be produced (neurogenesis) and that new pathways in the brain are constantly being formed (neuroplasticity). Most teachers I know have been applying some version of this mindset since they began teaching. In fact, how could anyone be a good teacher without such a mindset? Maybe I’m being simplistic, but without believing in the possibility of intellectual growth, how can you believe in learning? Learning is change. Good teachers know that their attitude and assumptions about how well a student can learn will influence how well they do learn from you. Developing such an attitude in students is crucial to learning.


Dweck cites research to show that a growth mindset not only leads to an increase in learning, but an increase in compassion and a decrease in aggressive behavior and depression. Why is that?


To have a fixed mindset is not very different than believing in a fixed ego. According to Mathieu Ricard, such a view of ego has three characteristics. Firstly, you imagine you perceive the world as it is and that your perception is the only correct perception. Those who oppose you are just wrong. Secondly, you project onto the world attributes that aren’t there, attributes like goodness, beauty, ugliness, and these attributes are fixed, constant, unchanging and distinct, separable from the socio-historical context that supplied the label, which gets us to the third characteristic. You try to deny that you and others can change in meaningful ways. It is all genetics, out of your control. Your heroes are exceptional, superhuman. Successful people are born that way. God or nature favored them. Dweck described the fixed mindset as saying, “effort is for those with deficiencies.” (42) Thirdly, you think of everything you see as standing on its own, separate instead of as part of an interconnecting network. But life means change. Breathing is change. Learning is change. And there is no isolating of anything in the universe from the universe. A fixed mindset requires constant vigilance to ignore much of life and what is happening around you and to perceive instead your idea of what is or should be there. It requires ignoring empathy and compassion both for what others might actually be feeling, as well as for your own thoughts and emotions.


Depression can share these characteristics with a fixed mindset. Depression is not just depressed feeling; it is a depressed ability to take in, be open to, new information, experiences and viewpoints. You don’t recognize a difference between sadness, or feeling down as a natural response to events in the world, something everyone sometimes feels, and identifying yourself as a depressed person. You cut yourself off, feel stuck and unable to change. You can mentally lock yourself in a box built out of your own ideas about yourself and the world. Instead of being present and open, you are absent from the life that exists beyond the limited boundary of your box.


One way to end depression is to practice compassion. Compassion is empathy with extra benefits. You step out of your box and look around you. You treat yourself and others with more kindness and patience. Compassion can include the cognitive ability to discern what another feels as well as emotional resonance, empathetic caring and openness to what another person feels. Then there’s a readiness to act to reduce the suffering of another being almost as if the suffering was your own. You recognize you are two different beings but what you share is at least as important as how you are different. Compassion is the ultimate growth mindset in that you know and feel the other person can change and you commit yourself to work to help spur that change.


Compassion also means you realize that how you treat others is how you treat yourself. By being open to another person, your state of mind and heart become openness, caring, kindness. When you close yourself to another, you are closed off.  Whether you act on it or not, when you carry anger, the world comes back to you as angry. You suffer your anger. When you carry hate, you depersonalize others and turn them into merely ideas. Carrying hate can rob you of power and control by depriving you of perspective. You feel a world dominated by hatred. When you are compassionate and kind, the world feels compassionate; you, as well as those around you, get the benefits. Thus, one way to free yourself from a fixed mindset or depression, and expand your ability to think clearly and critically, is to practice empathy and compassion.


A fixed mindset is a distorted way of looking at other people and the world. Such a viewpoint can have disastrous social and political consequences. A growth mindset, on the other hand, has tremendous social as well as educational benefits. It realizes you cannot isolate yourself from the welfare of others or imagine those who are successful are somehow more deserving, by nature, than anyone else. Success is due to your care and effort as well as the cultural environment and how social/political institutions are structured. These institutions can change. A growth mindset can spur individual people, and those collections of people in large groups called governments, to work for the welfare of all.


“True compassion, is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

Who Are We Humans?

I was fascinated a few weeks ago when I heard the news of the discovery of a new human ancestor, an extinct hominid named Homo naledi. I guess my interest was peaked partly because I used to teach about human evolution in a history class, and mostly because I never stopped being interested in anthropology and the broader question of “Who are we humans?”


The remains of Homo naledi were discovered in a cave in South Africa, in a great cache of bones. It is now thought to have been a burial site, since the bodies seemed to have been placed in a very difficult to reach cave. The males of the species stood about 5 feet tall, weighing about 100 pounds, and their skulls were slightly bigger than Australopithecines (the first upright walking hominid) and smaller than Homo erectus (the first hominid to leave Africa), and about half the size of modern humans. The discovery adds knowledge and also raises great questions about human ancestry. For example, just a few years ago it was thought that Neanderthal was the first hominid species to bury its dead. The Neanderthal lived from about 400,000 years ago to 39,000. This find would contradict that theory and push back the use of rituals and burials possibly 3 million years.


The discovery was also a personal reminder that my theories and knowledge are always partial. Although I know that everything changes, know that life itself is change, I still get surprised when a theory or understanding I hold must be let go. When I taught history, I did not expect that the “facts” I discussed would soon be altered. How do you teach knowing that everything you teach might change at any time? How do you understand anything knowing that the details, and theories based on those details, might change at any time? What a great question to pose to a class.


A great way to start any history class (or one in biology, human cultures, or a class on the literature of identity) is by asking this central question of anthropology: “What makes us human?” If you don’t have a grounding in the basics of humanness, how can you understand, for example, historical cause and effect? The laws of cause and effect in a group of baboons operate slightly differently than in a group of bonobo chimps (the species arguably closest to our own). Certainly, I have heard debates about politics, for example, where some speakers sound like they’re talking about baboons, others like bonobos, neither about humans. If you think humans are like baboons, you also use teaching methods created for baboons. In fact, I think many of the proposals for holding teachers accountable were formulated by mistaking humans for baboons.


One of the great characteristics of the human brain is its adaptability. Humans live in and have adapted to enormously different conditions. When I studied psychology in college in the 1960s, it was thought that the brain stops growing and new neurons stop being created after adolescence. Contemporary neuroscience disagrees. There’s the concept of neuroplasticity or the constantly changing nature of the brain, as well as neurogenesis, or the ability to produce new brain cells. But the ability to adapt and to change obviously has its limits, partly due to biology, partly due to attitude, conditioning and experience. For example, the hippocampus, part of the emotion center of the brain, is responsible for neurogenesis and creating new brain pathways. It is very sensitive to trauma and stress and to how these two are interpreted. If stress is habitual, the hippocampus can shrink  and slow neurogenesis. If stress is seen as occasional and as something to learn from, it is very different from thinking it unnatural and a result of a deficit in your character. What we think is true has tremendous influence on what we create to be true.


Neuropsychologist and author Rick Hanson quotes a native American saying in his book Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Science of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom: “In my heart there are two wolves: a wolf of love and a wolf of hate. It all depends on which one I feed each day.” Which one will you feed? Feed with your ideas and speech as well as your actions? Which one will our society feed in our systems of educating our youth? Which one will you as a teacher feed in your classroom, or you as a parent or child feed in your homes? How will you answer the question, in your life, “Who are we humans?”

Why Deny Science? What Do You Do When You Don’t Know?

I was reading a great article in the latest issue of National Geographic, by Joel Achenbach, on the modern movement against science. Actually, I can’t stand calling it a movement. There should be a better word for it, maybe collective delusion. The cost of denying science is incalculable. Science shows the state of the environment, for example, is degrading rapidly. Yet, if the article is correct, only about “40% of Americans accept that human activity is the dominant cause of climate change” and thus realize we can and must do many things to improve the situation. I encourage everyone to read the article.


The article shows that strong sentiment against science is not new. The persecution of Galileo is one good example. There was a great outrage against Darwin, that partially continues even today. The novel Frankenstein is in many ways an expression of the fear against not only technology but science. You might think that by now, when we’re in the age of information technology, which depends on science for its very existence, there would be more trust in science. But as the deniers of  global warming prove, as people who argue against teaching evolution in schools prove, scientific thinking, and maybe critical thinking, is clearly misunderstood and probably feared.


Why is this true? It’s certainly a great question for teenagers to think about. My students in the past had theories. Maybe the dependence on science makes the fear of it more potent. It’s easy to fear what you depend on but don’t understand. Is there a general anti-intellectual bias in American culture? Is it, as has been argued in books like The Closing of the Western Mind, a phenomenon arising originally from uniting Christianity with imperial power, or religious belief with politics?


Many people I know hold religion responsible for this lack of understanding. Certainly, scientific and religious explanations often disagree. And there have been countless examples of delusion by religious people claiming to act out of faith or belief. But the same could be argued regarding adherents to political and economic theories or analyses. Without any fact checking, I think I can reasonably argue that for the last 150 years, adherents of Fascism, Communism, and Capitalism have caused as much delusion and suffering as has any religious belief system.


The article conjectures not knowing what evidence is, which I interpret as not knowing how to critically examine evidence and bias, contributes to science denial.  I agree. However, I think the problem is also due to not knowing how to deal well with not-knowing and uncertainty. Achenbach says “our brains crave pattern and meaning.” The craving for an answer can be overwhelming; the more basic and important the reality, the stronger the craving. You perceive something and in microseconds you assign meaning. You need to know that the earth under your feet won’t give way when you step on it or you won’t be able to walk. You learn early on that certain uncomfortable sensations in your midsection are hunger pains. The good taste of food was originally there to tell you that the food you’re tasting is not poison. Uncertainty is hunger for certainty; it’s uncomfortable. How do you understand discomfort? Is it “bad”? Does it mean you are in danger and must do whatever possible to end it, including believing in what restores comfort instead of what is best supported by evidence? Achenbach talks about a “confirmation bias,” the “tendency to look for and see only evidence that confirms what they already believe.” In that case, you will not do very well with adversity or stress or anything requiring complex thinking.


And science demands complex thinking. The National Geographic article points out that “scientific results are always provisional,” subject to change;  “Uncertainty is inevitable at the frontiers of knowledge.” How do you hear that? Do you want truth to be absolute, simple and forever? If so, I doubt that many “truths” are like that. For example, the good taste of food indicating something is safe to eat depends on where and when you’re talking about. 10,000 years ago it might have been true. Today, thanks to pollutants and pesticides, the taste of raw foods can’t be counted on to indicate safety. Even something like the boiling point of water is dependent on elevation, amount of salt and other contents in the water, etc.. The relativity and provisional quality of truth can be disturbing. Achenbach points out how difficult it is for us to look beyond our intuitions, to see the evidence for the curves of the earth despite the everyday assumption of flatness. Although scientific studies can be distorted by funding sources and bias, the very fact that science is recognized as provisional makes it possible and mandatory that critical minds engage with it.


To live with discomfort and uncertainty and be able to think and act with clarity, you need first to understand that discomfort is part of learning. It is there to wake up your attention so you can consider whether to say yes, no or maybe to something. You need to know about neuroplasticity, a word meaning that the brain changes, you change, with every experience. Who you are is not set in stone; if it was, learning would be impossible.


You need to know how attention and perception work. Back in 2003, I started using a book called Multimind, by Robert Ornstein, in my psychology class unit on perception. Ornstein theorizes Mental Operating Systems in the brain, which process and assign value to information according to specific criteria. Information that meets these criteria is given attention and other information is ignored. The MOS has an “extreme sensitivity to recent information,” to what’s new, what’s changed. It values relevance to you and everything becomes meaningful through comparison. Something that changes gradually is lost. Global warming is gradual, so gradual that most of us don’t perceive it until the tidal wave or tornado or six feet of snow or extreme hot or cold temperatures hit you. Actually, we don’t perceive it unless we carefully study it, unless we value such studying and thus know the relevance and power of the information.


But intellectual knowledge is not enough. You need the intention, the commitment, the care. You need an experiential method to calm your mind and clearly observe and learn from whatever is present to you, even discomfort and pain. Constructive action is likely only when you perceive the situation clearly. Somehow, we all have to get better at cradling information, cradling the world in our arms so we can feel depths of meaning without hiding from or reacting against it.


*See the addendum to this blog.

**The photo is of the Temple of Athena in Delphi, Greece.

Motivate Without Anxiety

How do you motivate students to do well without creating anxiety over performance? Many teachers I know report increasing anxiety in their students. I wrote about this briefly in an earlier blog, about the link between the 3Cs (commitment, control and challenge) and decreasing stress, and I will discuss this in more detail soon. But first, what is anxiety?


To understand what a student feels, place yourself in their position. Bring up in your mind a time you felt anxious, especially about learning, or not understanding something, or taking a test. What does anxiety feel like? Where do you feel it? Notice, for example, how your heart feels. Notice your belly, shoulders, hands, and your body temperature. Do you feel warm or cold? How fast or slow does your mind work? What images come to mind? What thoughts? And, what conclusions do you draw from these observations?


Many students report their hands clench; they sweat. Their heart and thoughts race. It is the flight-fight-freeze response. They replay scenarios of the future over and over again. They hear condemnation from others. They imagine that a situation is arising or will arise they can’t handle. Maybe they feel no control. Maybe they feel they are just not capable enough. They feel their understanding of self fading away. They think other people have an image of them that is bad or unlikable and feel weighed down by this seemingly imposed image. They feel like turning away but can’t.


Anxiety is about feeling disconnected and not in control. It is losing the sense of the present by looking to the future and fearing judgment. And it’s not just about school. All students, but especially those prone to anxiety, need support, maybe even need a refuge. Since they have a fragile sense of being present, they need lessons in more than academic skills.


Students, and all of us, need to feel control, commitment, and challenge. These 3Cs turn the energy that might go into stress into engagement. “Control” can have many meanings. For school, control means having some choice in what is studied and in how understanding is assessed, so the class feels meaningful and connected to their lives. Students can voice their own questions and concerns and see them addressed. They, of course, also need to learn the basic skills of reading, writing and thinking critically.


They need to learn how to monitor their feelings and thoughts moment-by-moment, as is done with mindfulness. This gives them the power to choose—do I listen to this idea, or act on that one? It provides the insight to know how and when to question facts to uncover bias, question thoughts to reveal distortions. It’s empowering to learn what a thought is, that thoughts tell stories but not always true or healthy ones. Thoughts are not necessarily revelations from an oracle, and don’t have to be believed. We can step back and let them go. This inner knowing helps students assess their work in a meaningful way and, thus, not be dependent on external sources of judgment, like what the teacher thinks of them.


Besides studying mind with mindfulness, study the basic working of the brain with neuroscience. For example, students in my classes were always engaged when we discussed neuroplasticity, or the fact that they, their brain, can change and strengthen throughout life. It is very empowering to learn that your brain is not set by the time you’re 15. Combining mindfulness and neuroscience allows students to study their mind and behavior and treat life itself as a vast school teaching them how to think and act most clearly, ethically and effectively.


Commitment is acting on what is chosen. It involves students getting immersed and engaged in what they do. They allow themselves to be present, aware of their thinking, acting and feeling. Challenge comes from feeling the task is important, that it tests and develops their ability, but is not so challenging that they can’t succeed. It involves trusting that the teacher will support, coach, assist when needed. A well-planned challenge leads the student to feel trust in their capabilities.


Which mindfulness practices work best when students are anxious? Since mindfulness educates attention, begin with learning to notice the first signs of anxiety, as we discussed earlier, and to let go of the thoughts generating that anxious response. However, anxiety can make it more difficult to just sit and notice what occurs in the body and mind. Here are a few alternative practices:

  1. Teach focus. Counting breaths or visualizing a natural scene, like a flower, mountain, tree, or gently moving stream, can calm and clear the mind.
  2. Practice empathy and compassion. The empathy for others can transfer to themselves. And empathy or care for another person or being can free them from incessant worry.
  3. Progressive relaxation and visualization. They learn how to relax the body, starting with the toes and working their way up. After relaxing the body, the teacher can have students visualize a scene in a novel or an historical incident, for example, or have them imagine how to face a difficult problem.


G. K. Chesterton said, “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered.” I love the quote, and so do my students, although in my mind I often substitute ‘understood’ for ‘considered.’ The quote helps me change how I look at all the unanticipated and possibly stressful events that arise each day. What story will I tell  myself about an event or challenge? Will I be a hero or heroine, fighter of injustice and bringer of light to the world? Or a villain? What I tell myself is of crucial importance. In many ways, it’s my choice, my story. So I need to do it with awareness.  And teachers, what better motivator can you find than allowing students the chance to hero their own stories?


For an updated source on thought distortions go to a site by Sam Thomas Davis.