What is imperative is that the quality of the educational process fostered at the level of the study circle rise markedly over the next year . . . . . Much will fall on those who serve as tutors in this respect. Theirs will be the challenge to provide the environment that is envisioned in the institute courses, an environment conducive to the spiritual empowerment of individuals, who will come to see themselves as active agents of their own learning, as protagonists of a constant effort to apply knowledge to effect individual and collective transformation.
(Universal House of Justice: 21 April 2010)
Much effort is being devoted in the Bahá’í community to acquiring the capacity to empower others. A key component in this endeavour is what is being termed ‘accompaniment.’ In the same message as quoted above, the Universal House of Justice refers to this:
This evolution in collective consciousness is discernable in the growing frequency with which the word “accompany” appears in conversations among the friends, a word that is being endowed with new meaning as it is integrated into the common vocabulary of the Bahá’í community. It signals the significant strengthening of a culture in which learning is the mode of operation, a mode that fosters the informed participation of more and more people in a united effort to apply Bahá’u’lláh‘s teachings to the construction of a divine civilization, which the Guardian states is the primary mission of the Faith.
There are a number of contexts (see other posts for an explanation of these) which are allowing Bahá’ís to acquire, develop and consolidate these skills, but we are still at a relatively early stage of doing so and we have much to learn.
I for one have been helped greatly in my endeavours in this respect by the vast body of experience that has been accumulating over the years in the wider community, some of which I have discussed in this blog (see for example the posts on Effort and Excellence). In the book I was describing there, Bounce by Matthew Syed, he drew heavily on the work of Carol Dweck.
I simply had to have a look at some of her work myself so I bought her book Mindset. The whole book is a worthwhile read but I don’t want to go over exactly the same ground as Syed does, valuable though that is. I thought it would be worth looking in more detail at what she has to say about empowering relationships.
For the benefit of those who haven’t read my posts on Bounce, perhaps I’d better recap on the concept of mindsets and her argument from evidence that there are two mindsets which are particularly relevant to learning and personal development.
There is the fixed mindset and the growth mindset.
The fixed mindset believes in the crippling myth of talent which goes along with the idea that you either have it or you don’t. If you don’t have it, you can’t acquire it so there’s no point in practising. If you do have it, you needn’t work very hard to keep ahead of the pack. In fact, working hard to do well means you aren’t talented because if you were you wouldn’t have to work at it.
The growth mindset says that everyone has the capacity to become extremely skilled at any number of things. It just takes focused practice, openness to feedback and a belief in the power of effort.
One of the key distinctions between the way these two mindsets affect people lies in their experience of mistakes. To the fixed mindset mistakes prove you have no talent and are to be avoided at all costs which means steering well clear of anything you could learn from. It leads you to stick to what you can already do and avoid attempting anything that would stretch you at all significantly. The growth mindset welcomes mistakes as an opportunity to learn.
Now for what Dweck says about relationships especially in the context of education.
First there is the issue of praise. She nails her colours to the mast very early on in her discussion of teaching and parenting (page 175):
Praising children’s intelligence harms their motivation and it harms their performance.
This is a central point for those of us who are involved in working with others to empower them. We know encouragement is vital so why should praising intelligence be so bad?
Dweck puts it most succinctly on the same page:
[Children] especially love to be praised for their intelligence and talent. It really does give them a boost, a special glow – but only for a moment. The minute they hit a snag, their confidence goes out the window and their motivation hits rock bottom. If success means they’re smart, then failure means they’re dumb. That’s the fixed mindset.
She adduces empirical evidence to support this and she is not the only well-qualified voice to do so. Many years ago I read a book by Guy Claxton, Wise Up, with the sub-title ‘The Challenge of Lifelong Learning.’ He discusses very similar issues in somewhat different language and makes the point that modelling the value of confusion rather than the value of simply looking clever is an important part of a teacher’s toolbox (page 70):
[A] knowledge-focused model reinforces teachers’ belief that they have to be the fount of all knowledge – a belief that makes student teachers very anxious. . . . . Not to know is, for them, to be caught out, to be found wanting, and thus to risk the loss of the pupils’ respect. . . . The idea that genuine confusion and uncertainty are part of learning, and that if children are to become good learners they have to get used to operating under such conditions, is, on this model, unintelligible. The idea that it might be useful for teachers to model for children ‘what to do when you don’t know what to do’ would be . . . unthinkable.
The House of Justice emphasises that in the adult learning processes we are striving to implement, everyone, including the tutor, is ‘to advance on equal footing.’ Feeling you have to behave as if you know it all would be completely out of place.
And Dweck is not blind to the importance of shifting the emphasis from having the gift of talent to seeing the value of learning. In her view we praise people (page 177) for ‘what they have accomplished through practice, study, persistence, and good strategies.’ She points out (page 179) how ‘speed and perfection are the enemy of difficult learning,’ When people learn something fast we need to apologise for giving them something too easy and denying them an opportunity to learn.
She condenses many of her insights into the incisive statement (page 186):
Don’t judge. Teach. It’s a learning process.
Her approach does not involve lowering standards in order to ‘encourage’ a student. Feedback has to be honest and the standards have to be high. That is combined with the ability to communicate to every single student, however disadvantaged their starting point, that they can learn to learn. And that once they learn that, who knows how high they can fly?
Fixed mindset teachers in her view (page 197) ‘look at students’ beginning performance and decide who’s smart and who’s dumb.’ They don’t believe in improvement. Teachers with a growth mindset combine challenge with nurture (page 198). And they do not regard themselves as a finished product either.
They love to learn. And teaching is a wonderful way to learn. About people and how they tick. About what you teach. About yourself. And about life.
She quotes a coach with a growth mindset (page 207):
You have to apply yourself each day to becoming a little better. By applying yourself to the task of becoming a little better each and every day over a period of time, you will become a lot better.
It’s hard not to see the parallels here with spiritual development:
The lily grows from a very unattractive-looking bulb. If we had never seen a lily in bloom, never gazed on its matchless grace of foliage and flower, how could we know the reality contained in that bulb? We might dissect it most carefully and examine it most minutely, but we should never discover the dormant beauty which the gardener knows how to awaken. So until we have seen the Glory of God revealed in the Manifestation, we can have no idea of the spiritual beauty latent in our own nature and in that of our fellows. By knowing and loving the Manifestation of God and following His teachings we are enabled, little by little, to realize the potential perfections within ourselves; then, and not till then, does the meaning and purpose of life and of the universe become apparent to us.
So, we’re all on a journey, teacher and student alike, and none of us is complete and perfect. And the humility of that understanding is empowering when it translates into action within a relationship.