Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Your intelligence is in your hands

Last night I grew many neurons listening to Carol Dweck's presentation on Creating a Mindset for Achievement at BayCHI. Carol is a social psychologist, professor at Stanford and a leading researcher in the field of motivation. Her extensive research in young students' ability to learn and improve in the face of struggle is the heart of the fixed vs growth learning concept:

"I don't divide the word into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures. I divide them into the learners and the non-learners." - Benjamin Barber

According to Carol Dweck, people with the fixed learning mindset:
  • Believe intelligence is a fixed trait.
  • Feel they must look intelligent at all times. They don't publicly question anything for fear of revealing what they don't know. They hide their mistakes and deficiencies.
  • Avoid struggle and challenge because they believe learning must be effortless. They think struggle is proof that they lack the ability to learn that subject or skill.
  • Compare themselves to people who achieve less as proof that they are intelligent.
The fixed mindset provides no recipe for recovering from failures. Fixed mindset learners easily give up, retreat to comfortable topics, blame others, or look for other people to feel superior to. Fixed mindsets are cultivated early in life by parents and teachers who unknowingly suggest the values of a fixed mindset mentality. They praise kids when things come easy, tell them they're talented and smart, and they don't reward struggle or effort as often.

In my own experience, I think back to elementary school art class, where students were though of as natural talents or not. The ability to draw was not presented as a learnable skill (most likely because the teachers didn't posses it themselves), so teachers had to give "A's for effort". However, the perception remained that either you have it...or you don't. I've often encountered this attitude around "being creative" as well, as if it's some kind of magical power. Though some people do seem to be more effortlessly able to draw and think "creatively", I certainly believe both are skills can be acquired and sharpened with practice. Turns out one of the biggest obstacles to leaning is simply believing you're not capable.

People with the growth learning mindset:
  • Believe intelligence is a malleable quality, a potential that can be developed.
  • Are always trying to learn, ask questions, and don't feel unintelligent for not knowing the answers. They capitalize on mistakes and view them as part of the learning process.
  • Enjoy the hard work of learning as well as the outcome. They're not singularly focused on grades or whether or not their answers are right. They care about understanding the answers.
  • Compare themselves to people who achieve more, aspire to their level, and believe with hard work, they can get there.
As a user experience designer, I've noticed that any time I encounter a product that feels effortless to understand and operate, it makes me feel smart. My goal is to help other people feel the same way. When it comes to products, users should be engaged by the knowledge or entertainment that your product provides, not by trying to figure out what it is or how to access it. Is that just catering to the fixed mindset? In this case, I don't think so. Removing struggle gets people right to the stuff they care most about. That's not just good user experience, it's good business.

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