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Posts Tagged ‘Carol Dweck’

Heart to heart

Humanity’s crying need . . . . . calls, rather, for a fundamental change of consciousness, for a wholehearted embrace of Bahá’u’lláh’s teaching that the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family.

(From a message of the Universal House of Justice to all those gathered on Mount Carmel to mark the completion of the project there on 24th May 2001)

This seems worth republishing at this point, given its relevance to nature as an issue in the current sequence.

I had a recent deep discussion with an old friend (of course, I mean old in the sense of ‘known a long time.’) We are close in many ways. We share a similar sense of humour and many core values. However, we are hugely different in our interests – hers practical, mine theoretical – and temperament – she, extravert: me, introvert.

She was completely unable to understand how I could combine a deep love of nature with a completely passive attitude to gardening.

I gave into the temptation to react, which generally involves treading on dangerous ground and attempted to point out that she similarly fails to understand why I spend so much time and energy reading and writing, even though she values some of the ideas that come out of all that effort.

I referred to her passion as horticulture. It’s then that the concept of ‘hearticulture’ came to me in a flash, as a good way of contrasting our intense enthusiasms.

This idea has had a long gestation period though.

First of all there was the slogan used many years ago in the Bahá’í community ‘Uniting the World: one heart at a time’ with the logo that accompanied it (see picture at the head of this post). I used to joke that this meant we were involved in heart-to-heart resuscitation.

Then there was the idea of ‘psy-culturalist’ which I coined in my discussion of my approach to mind-work, more specifically working with those who were experiencing distressing and abusive voices and the delusions that sometimes accompanied them. I wrote:

Because, to do mind-work, I drew on lots of other disciplines and traditions, including philosophy, psychology, biology, religion (especially Buddhism and the Bahá’í Faith) and the arts, I could sometimes feel like giving myself a fancy title such as psy-culturalist. This captures the richness of the traditions I could draw on and also captures the essential purpose of mind-work which is growth. It also meant I didn’t have to label myself a psychologist with its one-sided implication that I study the mind but don’t work with it, nor did I have to call myself a Clinical Psychologist with its implications of illness and therapy, which are insulting to the client.

Psy-culturalist, as a term, has a similar problem to Clinical Psychology. If we think about gardening, it’s a one-way street. Plants, as a general rule, don’t grow people. Mind-work, though, is both reciprocal and reflexive. I grow you and you grow me and we grow ourselves as well!

Flowers near the Shrine

Flowers near the Shrine of the Báb

Thirdly, there was all my pondering on the issue of the ‘understanding heart.’ In that process I attempted to unpack some of the implications of a key image in the Bahá’í Writings: the heart as a garden. I wrote:

The garden image implies that many of the processes that promote spiritual development have a far slower pace than either light or fire would suggest. The image is also powerfully suggestive of how the processes of spiritual growth are an interaction between what we do and what is accomplished by infinitely greater powers that work invisibly on the garden of the heart over long periods of time. It takes only a few seconds to plant a seed, it takes some degree of patience then to nurture and protect it, but by far the greater determinants of what happens in the end come from the soil, the weather and the sun.

When, for example, I read a passage of Scripture I am sowing seeds. When I perform acts of kindness as a result I water that seed. My heart’s garden then benefits with flowers and fruit because of the rich nutrients of the spiritual soil and the energising power of the divine sun. By analogy, these fruits yield further seeds that I can plant if I have the wisdom and caring to do so, and my heart will benefit even further.

I know that the term ‘hearticulture’ could still be seen as one-sided. I’m the gardener and you’re the garden. But in terms of the Bahá’í perspective that would be missing a crucial point: I need to tend my heart, you need to tend yours and we can both help each other in this process. We both can help each other develop a growth mindset, to borrow Carol Dweck’s terminology.

Once we begin to see what this means, every interaction with another human being, or even with an animal, insect or plant, becomes an opportunity to facilitate our growth and the growth of the being with whom we are interacting. And, what’s just as or even more important, they can facilitate ours.

That heart is an anagram of earth just makes the metaphor even more appealing. I have come to realize that hearticulture is my true passion. Everything I do is influenced, perhaps even entirely reducible, to that purpose. I want to understand myself and others better, that’s true, but not just for its own sake, but for the purpose of growth. And if our hearts grow, so will the earth as a whole benefit. When our hearts shrink, the world dies a little. If all our hearts should shrivel completely, the world as we know it would be utterly destroyed. We would wreak such havoc that Hiroshima and Nagasaki would be utterly dwarfed by the consequences.

Basically, I have to learn how to expand my heartfelt sense of connectedness so that it embraces the whole earth. I believe that’s what we all need to learn. I want to learn it too, and as fast as I can, but I have discovered over the years that the metaphor of gardening applies here also in a way. I cannot grow faster than the laws of nature and the limitations of my own being allow. To paraphrase a Bahá’í pamphlet on making the equality of men and women a reality, hearticulture will also take love, patience and the passage of frustratingly long spans of time.

But that is not a reason not to persist in the attempt.

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Mindset

Growth mindset practitioners believe academic performance is not innate and can be learned – but even its originator, psychologist Carol Dweck, is concerned about misuse. Photograph: Alamy

Given the interest I’ve expressed on this blog about Carol Dweck’s work, this balanced assessment of some planned research made interesting reading and indicates that the current debate about what should be happening in our classrooms needs to become far richer than  it currently seems to be. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

Can watching short films featuring actors impersonating Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein improve your brainpower? Researchers working in 100 British primary schools will try to find out from September, thanks to a £290,000 grant from the Education Endowment Foundation to test whether instructing children aged 10 and 11 in “growth mindset”, an idea from American psychology, can improve results.

“Growth mindset” is the name given by psychologist Carol Dweck to the idea that intelligence can develop, and that effort leads to success. Her influential research, which has been lapped up by thousands of teachers in the UK, divides people according to what Dweck calls implicit theories of intelligence. If we think talent or braininess is innate and something we cannot change, we have a “fixed mindset” (blamed by Dweck for the Enron scandal, among other ills). If we believe our performance at school and in life can be changed by our attitude, and particularly by how we cope with setbacks, we have a “growth mindset”. The British study, called Changing Mindsets, will test its effectiveness using videos and quizzes developed by education company Positive Edge in year 6 classrooms, while psychologists will train teachers for one day.

“Expectations change neurology; if you have low expectations of a child their brain starts to function worse,” says Sherria Hoskins, the Portsmouth University professor leading the study. “We’re not saying you can turn a child who is struggling at maths into a maths genius. The message is about getting better.”

The videos feature actors playing Darwin, Einstein and Olympic athlete Wilma Rudolph, describing their achievements in ways that emphasise a growth mindset. “There was nothing special about my intellect,” announces Darwin. “The ability to change and adapt has been key to our existence.”

The study will look at what Hoskins calls “learning behaviour” as well as attainment, meaning how children manage themselves and whether they learn from mistakes. But the results will depend on Sats scores, and whether the pupils who receive the training and watch the films do better than a control group who do not.

“It’s about the language you use with pupils,” Hoskins says. “Instead of praising them around ability or static factors related to who they are – for example, saying ‘you’re so good at drawing’ – you move to feedback based on effort, strategy and results. Many people don’t realise praise can be dangerous.”

While there is widespread support for the principle of evidence-based policy, and for an approach that promotes trying over talent, growth mindset itself is a topic of heated debate. Last year Dweck was reported to be concerned about growth mindset “misuse”, and told Schools Week she was kept awake at night by the fear that mindset was becoming “the new self-esteem” – an idea bandied about by teachers who had not properly understood it and used it to “make kids feel good about any effort”. Hoskins says she is frustrated by the extent to which views are polarised, with mindset viewed either as a magic wand or a fad.

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Heart to heart

Humanity’s crying need . . . . . calls, rather, for a fundamental change of consciousness, for a wholehearted embrace of Bahá’u’lláh’s teaching that the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family.

(From a message of the Universal House of Justice to all those gathered on Mount Carmel to mark the completion of the project there on 24th May 2001)

I had a recent deep discussion with an old friend (of course, I mean old in the sense of ‘known a long time.’) We are close in many ways. We share a similar sense of humour and many core values. However, we are hugely different in our interests – hers practical, mine theoretical – and temperament – she, extravert: me, introvert.

She was completely unable to understand how I could combine a deep love of nature with a completely passive attitude to gardening.

I gave into the temptation to react, which generally involves treading on dangerous ground and attempted to point out that she similarly fails to understand why I spend so much time and energy reading and writing, even though she values some of the ideas that come out of all that effort.

I referred to her passion as horticulture. It’s then that the concept of ‘hearticulture’ came to me in a flash, as a good way of contrasting our intense enthusiasms.

This idea has had a long gestation period though.

First of all there was the slogan used many years ago in the Bahá’í community ‘Uniting the World: one heart at a time’ with the logo that accompanied it (see picture at the head of this post). I used to joke that this meant we were involved in heart-to-heart resuscitation.

Then there was the idea of ‘psy-culturalist’ which I coined in my discussion of my approach to mind-work, more specifically working with those who were experiencing distressing and abusive voices and the delusions that sometimes accompanied them. I wrote:

Because, to do mind-work, I drew on lots of other disciplines and traditions, including philosophy, psychology, biology, religion (especially Buddhism and the Bahá’í Faith) and the arts, I could sometimes feel like giving myself a fancy title such as psy-culturalist. This captures the richness of the traditions I could draw on and also captures the essential purpose of mind-work which is growth. It also meant I didn’t have to label myself a psychologist with its one-sided implication that I study the mind but don’t work with it, nor did I have to call myself a Clinical Psychologist with its implications of illness and therapy, which are insulting to the client.

Psy-culturalist, as a term, has a similar problem to Clinical Psychology. If we think about gardening, it’s a one-way street. Plants, as a general rule, don’t grow people. Mind-work, though, is both reciprocal and reflexive. I grow you and you grow me and we grow ourselves as well!

Flowers near the Shrine

Flowers near the Shrine of the Báb

Thirdly, there was all my pondering on the issue of the ‘understanding heart.’ In that process I attempted to unpack some of the implications of a key image in the Bahá’í Writings: the heart as a garden. I wrote:

The garden image implies that many of the processes that promote spiritual development have a far slower pace than either light or fire would suggest. The image is also powerfully suggestive of how the processes of spiritual growth are an interaction between what we do and what is accomplished by infinitely greater powers that work invisibly on the garden of the heart over long periods of time. It takes only a few seconds to plant a seed, it takes some degree of patience then to nurture and protect it, but by far the greater determinants of what happens in the end come from the soil, the weather and the sun.

When, for example, I read a passage of Scripture I am sowing seeds. When I perform acts of kindness as a result I water that seed. My heart’s garden then benefits with flowers and fruit because of the rich nutrients of the spiritual soil and the energising power of the divine sun. By analogy, these fruits yield further seeds that I can plant if I have the wisdom and caring to do so, and my heart will benefit even further.

I know that the term ‘hearticulture’ could still be seen as one-sided. I’m the gardener and you’re the garden. But in terms of the Bahá’í perspective that would be missing a crucial point: I need to tend my heart, you need to tend yours and we can both help each other in this process. We both can help each other develop a growth mindset, to borrow Carol Dweck’s terminology.

Once we begin to see what this means, every interaction with another human being, or even with an animal, insect or plant, becomes an opportunity to facilitate our growth and the growth of the being with whom we are interacting. And, what’s just as or even more important, they can facilitate ours.

That heart is an anagram of earth just makes the metaphor even more appealing. I have come to realize that hearticulture is my true passion. Everything I do is influenced, perhaps even entirely reducible, to that purpose. I want to understand myself and others better, that’s true, but not just for its own sake, but for the purpose of growth. And if our hearts grow, so will the earth as a whole benefit. When our hearts shrink, the world dies a little. If all our hearts should shrivel completely, the world as we know it would be utterly destroyed. We would wreak such havoc that Hiroshima and Nagasaki would be utterly dwarfed by the consequences.

Basically, I have to learn how to expand my heartfelt sense of connectedness so that it embraces the whole earth. I believe that’s what we all need to learn. I want to learn it too, and as fast as I can, but I have discovered over the years that the metaphor of gardening applies here also in a way. I cannot grow faster than the laws of nature and the limitations of my own being allow. To paraphrase a Bahá’í pamphlet on making the equality of men and women a reality, hearticulture will also take love, patience and the passage of frustratingly long spans of time.

But that is not a reason not to persist in the attempt.

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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)

I have embarked on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I decided that I also needed to republish other posts from the past that related in some way to that basic theme. This post was first published in 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.

(Esslemont in Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era: page 74)

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.

© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

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I have embarked on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I decided that I also needed to republish other posts from the past that related in some way to that basic theme. The post below comes from 2011 and relates both to the sequence recently republished on cultural creatives and to the general issue of civilisation building. 

Among the issues raised in the series of posts on the Cultural Creatives, an important one concerns how to sustain motivation for action over very long periods of time – something absolutely essential if we are to engage in the civilisation building processes under discussion there.

Previously I tackled the challenges of overcoming inertia. One of the issues there, that is also relevant here, was becoming able to see that what you could do would lead to what you wanted if you kept at it, in spite of how incredible that might seem. But, to be honest, the problems of getting started pale into virtual insignificance when compared with those connected with persisting in the implementation of a plan over decades or even generations.

Concerning one movement examined in the book The Cultural Creatives the authors put this bluntly:

In the consciousness movement, the people who can persevere for ten, twenty, and thirty years are the ones who can have a dramatic impact on the culture – because that is the true time horizon of effective action.

(The Cultural Creatives: page 203)

Within the Bahá’í community the issue is the same. A currently serving member on the most senior institution of the Faith wrote recently:

Generation after generation of believers will strive to translate the teachings into a new social reality. . . . . . . .

(Paul LampleRevelation and Social Reality – page 48)

It therefore seemed worthwhile having a look from a psychological perspective at what that challenge might involve. It should complement the spiritual one. I am only just beginning the process of stretching my mind to encompass at least some of the implications of an important message from our sovereign body, the Universal House of Justice, whose rich, subtly textured and multi-layered analysis unfolds in detail what such complex work stretching over many decades demands of us. They have clearly taken into account the factors I am about to discuss and many more besides. I am not yet in a position where I can even hope to integrate the two kinds of discourse into a clear explanation. Some aspects of the psychological point of view will have to suffice for now, and maybe that is enough as it does help me (and hopefully others) get to better grips with at least some of what the world centre of our Faith is saying.

When I was working as a member of a rehabilitation team in a mental health context, I had reason to adapt into a simpler form Fishbein and Bandura’s ‘s model as a way of assisting people who were stuck in a kind of learned helplessness to free themselves from the unrelenting grip of that quicksand.

The first step was to help the trapped person define the ultimate destination (s)he wished to attain if at all possible. Once that had been defined, whether it was a return to work, completion of a college course, creating a pleasant place to live, finding friends, developing interests, preventing relapse or some combination of several of them, there was another question to be answered:  was the goal as defined highly enough valued to be intensely desired, particularly when ego boosting immediate rewards might be in short supply?

If the answer to that question was a resounding ‘yes’ we could move onto the next stage. If not, we had to work at making the vision clearer, more positive and more intensely desirable and, above all else, easier to hold on to. It is easy to see how this stage of the process can be applied to creating a motivating vision of civilisation building such as cultural creatives, Bahá’ís, and other people who care about the state of the world, need to develop. Because the next steps will take some explaining I won’t dwell on the obvious at this point.

 

© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

The next few questions are of critical importance. Obviously, once the vision was clear and sufficiently compelling, we had to look at what steps needed to be taken to get from where the person was to where (s)he wanted to be.

This inevitably led fairly rapidly to considering  two other interconnected questions which had to be answered before these ideas consolidated into a plan: did the steps as defined relate convincingly to the achievement of this goal and did they seem within the person’s power to execute?

We need to look at those one at a time.

Sometimes people don’t make a forwards move because they feel external demands are requiring them to do something that they can’t see is relevant to what they really want to do or they don’t believe that the step they can make at this point really will lead to where they want to get to. Such doubts have to be dealt with sympathetically and not discounted out of hand. There is often more than a grain of truth in them, and even if they are largely irrational, it does no good simply to say with a wave of the hand, ‘It’ll work out, don’t you worry.’ Often, the act of surfacing them in a supportive and sympathetic conversation with someone else dispels their paralysing power. It can cut them down to size and allow the person to see for themselves how it all might work.

Sometimes people can see that the step would work, but don’t believe they can perform it. It feels beyond them. Either they lack the skill or the courage or both. There may be material or other objective obstacles such as lack of money that may have to be addressed, but in the absence of those, what has to be tackled is making action possible by reducing the size of the step, increasing the level of support, practising and acquiring the missing skill or possibly all three.

Accompaniment and encouragement play a huge part in helping us embark on challenging adventures of this kind, and this is well recognised within the Baha’i community as well as outside it. Without those two supports many of us might well never move an inch.

There are some useful thoughts from another tradition of psychology that also have a bearing here.

Our society sells a very disabling illusion: a good life is a life without pain and discomfort. Even though it is fairly easy to prick this bubble – you only have to look carefully at how much painful effort and determination generally has to go into even the most apparently straightforward achievements – the lie slides back into our minds and tells us we shouldn’t have to exert ourselves to make something of our lives. We deserve it just for being here. Buying the lie is completely paralysing.

This lie relates also to the fixed mindset that the book Bounce deals with so vividly, its author Syed drawing heavily on the work of Dweck and others:  ‘If I’m talented I should succeed without trying: if I have to try I’m not talented.’ There are countless other insidious variations.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) gives this kind of life lie short shrift from a slightly different angle than the one Dweck, Syed and others are speaking from. Discomfort, pain even, are inevitable concomitants of life, they argue. Building a life around their avoidance is deadly: it paves the way to addiction, escapism, exploitation of others, loss of meaning and ultimately a frozen state of spiritual suicide, a living death that may even lead to someone taking their own life. Pain and discomfort are not to be made excuses for doing nothing on the grounds that they make everything too difficult. You learn to enact your values regardless of the discomfort they bring. The rewards ultimately far outweigh the costs. That is the good life.

There are many other aspects to consider which enrich the picture and reflect the full complexity of life more effectively, but I feel I will be in a better position to look at those when I have moved forward a bit more in my own thinking and developed a deeper understanding of what the House of Justice has so recently explained. So, these will have to wait for another time.

For now it is probably enough for me to repeat that there is more to healing a wounded world than recognising the tasks and making a start. Keeping going is the difficult trick to master, and remembering, as dear friend of mine put it, “You can’t sprint a marathon.’ That’s how you get from something like the building site in the first photo to the glory of this one.Upper Terraces View

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Among the issues raised in the series of posts on the Cultural Creatives, an important one concerns how to sustain motivation for action over very long periods of time – something absolutely essential if we are to engage in the civilisation building processes under discussion there.

Previously I tackled the challenges of overcoming inertia. One of the issues there, that is also relevant here, was becoming able to see that what you could do would lead to what you wanted if you kept at it, in spite of how incredible that might seem. But, to be honest, the problems of getting started pale into virtual insignificance when compared with those connected with persisting in the implementation of a plan over decades or even generations.

Concerning one movement examined in the book The Cultural Creatives the authors put this bluntly:

In the consciousness movement, the people who can persevere for ten, twenty, and thirty years are the ones who can have a dramatic impact on the culture – because that is the true time horizon of effective action.

(The Cultural Creatives: page 203)

Within the Bahá’í community the issue is the same. A currently serving member on the most senior institution of the Faith wrote recently:

Generation after generation of believers will strive to translate the teachings into a new social reality. . . . . . . .

(Paul LampleRevelation and Social Reality – page 48)

It therefore seemed worthwhile having a look from a psychological perspective at what that challenge might involve. It should complement the spiritual one. I am only just beginning the process of stretching my mind to encompass at least some of the implications of the most recent message from our sovereign body, the Universal House of Justice, whose rich, subtly textured and multi-layered analysis unfolds in detail what such complex work stretching over many decades demands of us. They have clearly taken into account the factors I am about to discuss and many more besides. I am not yet in a position where I can even hope to integrate the two kinds of discourse into a clear explanation. Some aspects of the psychological point of view will have to suffice for now, and maybe that is enough as it does help me (and hopefully others) get to better grips with at least some of what the world centre of our Faith is saying.

When I was working as a member of a rehabilitation team in a mental health context, I had reason to adapt into a simpler form Fishbein and Bandura’s ‘s model as a way of assisting people who were stuck in a kind of learned helplessness to free themselves from the unrelenting grip of that quicksand.

The first step was to help the trapped person define the ultimate destination (s)he wished to attain if at all possible. Once that had been defined, whether it was a return to work, completion of a college course, creating a pleasant place to live, finding friends, developing interests, preventing relapse or some combination of several of them, there was another question to be answered:  was the goal as defined highly enough valued to be intensely desired, particularly when ego boosting immediate rewards might be in short supply?

If the answer to that question was a resounding ‘yes’ we could move onto the next stage. If not, we had to work at making the vision clearer, more positive and more intensely desirable and, above all else, easier to hold on to. It is easy to see how this stage of the process can be applied to creating a motivating vision of civilisation building such as cultural creatives, Bahá’ís, and other people who care about the state of the world, need to develop. Because the next steps will take some explaining I won’t dwell on the obvious at this point.

The next few questions are of critical importance. Obviously, once the vision was clear and sufficiently compelling, we had to look at what steps needed to be taken to get from where the person was to where (s)he wanted to be.

This inevitably led fairly rapidly to considering  two other interconnected questions which had to be answered before these ideas consolidated into a plan: did the steps as defined relate convincingly to the achievement of this goal and did they seem within the person’s power to execute?

We need to look at those one at a time.

Sometimes people don’t make a forwards move because they feel external demands are requiring them to do something that they can’t see is relevant to what they really want to do or they don’t believe that the step they can make at this point really will lead to where they want to get to. Such doubts have to be dealt with sympathetically and not discounted out of hand. There is often more than a grain of truth in them, and even if they are largely irrational, it does no good simply to say with a wave of the hand, ‘It’ll work out, don’t you worry.’ Often, the act of surfacing them in a supportive and sympathetic conversation with someone else dispels their paralysing power. It can cut them down to size and allow the person to see for themselves how it all might work.

Sometimes people can see that the step would work, but don’t believe they can perform it. It feels beyond them. Either they lack the skill or the courage or both. There may be material or other objective obstacles such as lack of money that may have to be addressed, but in the absence of those, what has to be tackled is making action possible by reducing the size of the step, increasing the level of support, practising and acquiring the missing skill or possibly all three.

Accompaniment and encouragement play a huge part in helping us embark on challenging adventures of this kind, and this is well recognised within the Baha’i community as well as outside it. Without those two supports many of us might well never move an inch.

There are some useful thoughts from another tradition of psychology that also have a bearing here.

Our society sells a very disabling illusion: a good life is a life without pain and discomfort. Even though it is fairly easy to prick this bubble – you only have to look carefully at how much painful effort and determination generally has to go into even the most apparently straightforward achievements – the lie slides back into our minds and tells us we shouldn’t have to exert ourselves to make something of our lives. We deserve it just for being here. Buying the lie is completely paralysing.

This lie relates also to the fixed mindset that the book Bounce deals with so vividly, its author Syed drawing heavily on the work of Dweck and others:  ‘If I’m talented I should succeed without trying: if I have to try I’m not talented.’ There are countless other insidious variations.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) gives this kind of life lie short shrift from a slightly different angle than the one Dweck, Syed and others are speaking from. Discomfort, pain even, are inevitable concomitants of life, they argue. Building a life around their avoidance is deadly: it paves the way to addiction, escapism, exploitation of others, loss of meaning and ultimately a frozen state of spiritual suicide, a living death that may even lead to someone taking their own life. Pain and discomfort are not to be made excuses for doing nothing on the grounds that they make everything too difficult. You learn to enact your values regardless of the discomfort they bring. The rewards ultimately far outweigh the costs. That is the good life.

There are many other aspects to consider which enrich the picture and reflect the full complexity of life more effectively, but I feel I will be in a better position to look at those when I have moved forward a bit more in my own thinking and developed a deeper understanding of what the House of Justice has so recently explained. So, these will have to wait for another time.

For now it is probably enough for me to repeat that there is more to healing a wounded world than recognising the tasks and making a start. Keeping going is the difficult trick to master, and remembering, as dear friend of mine put it, “You can’t sprint a marathon.’ That’s how you get from something like the building site in the first photo to the glory of this one.

Picture by Marco Abrar: BahaiPictures.com

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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.

(Esslemont in Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era: page 74)

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.

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