Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Matthew Syed’

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

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

We’ve been here before with Bounce. Joan Freeman‘s book, Gifted Livesis a delightful perspective on the same issue as Matthew Syed explored: she followed 210 gifted and/or talented people closely over many decades, publishing her data as she went, but here she focuses in detail on twenty representative lives. One of the great values of the book is that these life stories are supported by a good knowledge of the baseline background data and of the findings generated by strong research.

Freeman couldn’t have chosen a more compelling story to draw me in than the life and death of Rachel Wallace. Her mother’s reaction to Rachel’s giftedness warped her life and it was only in its closing months, after her diagnosis of cancer at the age of 38, that she found peace in a deep spirituality that seemed miles away from the field of mathematics that had been the arena of all her triumphs and disasters (page 42):

Spiritual intelligence means being open to a kaleidoscope of ways of knowing which blur distinctions between the physical and psychic worlds. Truly spiritual people, as Rachel had become, have special abilities to meditate and visualise different ways of being while tapping their own inner knowledge. Her spiritual gifts meant she had an awareness of unity between herself and others, feeling herself part of the human community and the cosmos.

Not surprisingly, her ‘awareness of unity‘ resonated strongly with me because of its central place in the Bahá’í vision of the world.

Freeman draws a distinction between gifts and talents (page 6):

. . . I’ve used the word ‘gifted’ to mean outstandingly high mental ability and ‘talented’ to mean outstandingly high artistic ability, though the two overlap.

She unpacks some of the implications of  what she means by ‘gifted,’ for example (page 14):

Gifted thinking is not just hard work, dealing with deep problems or being inspired by startling flashes of insight, it often means a big leap in mental efficiency, which means the gifted can do more with what they have. The gifted can keep competing ideas and interpretations active within working memory till they sort out a way of co-ordinating them.

Her preamble about it not being just hard work shows where her take on this all diverges from the basic thesis of Bounce. She has case studies in her book that she feels point in that direction fairly unequivocally – the story of Margaret Sweeting for instance (page 196):

After four years in that highly selective music school, it became clear to her teachers, as well as to Margaret, that her aspiring classmates had far more talent than her. All those years of dedicated practice had got her through the auditions; . . . . . Chetham’s had taken a chance giving her a place; but not all chances pay off. Her talent was looking a little threadbare.

Practice very definitely does not always make perfect, Freeman feels (page 204):

Margaret obviously had talent. . . . But her talent was not in the top bracket. . . . . In spite of those 10,000 hours of practice which are said to make latent ability into expertise, it was clear in Margaret’s case it did not lead her to a life as a famous pianist.

Syed of course does not claim that it is practice and only practice that makes perfect. Other factors need to be added to the mix such as mindset and the quality of practice, the latter creating the ability to hold in mind a massive aggregate of data as though it were one single chunk. I’ve explored all these ideas in previous posts.

Great Hall, Clare College, Cambridge

It is not in this debate, though, that the main interest of this book lies for me.

First of all, it is in the many different challenges that being gifted or talented throws up for people, often from a very young age. Among the factors which these life stories illuminate are the attitudes of parents who see their child as gifted and don’t cope well with that idea, the response of the educational system to giftedness and how schools tend to exploit it to boost their ratings at the expense of the child’s emotional and social development, how moral awareness and giftedness do or do not relate, and the way that gifted women can be denied recognition in a most damaging way particularly if their gifts, as far as peers and teachers are concerned, lie where women are not supposed to shine, i.e. in the sciences or mathematics,.

Secondly it’s in the resonances the book evokes of experiences in my own life, not though in the sense of being particularly gifted. It’s in terms of being whisked at the age of 18 out of an ordinary environment in the north west of England to Clare College and the heady and elitist milieu of Cambridge University in the early 60s, a dislocation of the kind which many of the people in this book experienced and found very hard to handle, as did I.  Or in terms of teaching in a stiffly traditional grammar school in Tottenham in the mid-60s and seeing how creativity was stifled and rule-driven conformity was rewarded even in English Literature, not a topic that should be used to clone minds into the same patterns, again an issue for many in this book.

There is so much to say that it will not easily fit into the tight framework of a thousand word post (nothing new there, then, for me) so I’m going to have to spill over into at least one more. I may not be able to keep the threads of the different challenges separate from my own experiences either and may need to move freely between them if there is any hope of doing the complexity of my responses to this intriguing book some kind of  justice.

So, next time I’ll pick up on the education theme and see where it takes me.

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

No matter how strong the measure of Divine grace, unless supplemented by personal, sustained and intelligent effort it cannot become fully effective and be of any real and abiding advantage.

(Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, 27 February 1928)

The previous post ended by saying that Matthew Syed makes a point of fundamental importance that I would return to again later (Bounce: pages 103-104):

It is only in sport that the benefits of purposeful practice are accrued by individuals at the expense of other individuals, and never by society as a whole. But this is precisely the area in which purposeful practice is pursued with a vengeance, while it is all but neglected in the areas where we all stand to benefit. . . . The talent theory of expertise is not merely flawed in theory; it is insidious in practice, robbing individuals and institutions of the motivation to change themselves and society.

Before giving that the attention it deserves there’s a bit more ground to cover.

Even when we understand all that he explains about excellence and effort up to this point, there is something else left over. After all, as he points out, there are many people who have their interest sparked and embark upon a course of practice only to give up on it well before they shine.

He looks at the work of Carol Dweck for clues (pages 114-129). He begins by describing a study in which she divides children into two groups: those who thought intelligence was genetic and those who thought it could be improved by effort. She felt these were two different mindsets. Basically, although equally able on initial testing, the first group gave up quickly as questions in a test got harder, whereas members of the other group persisted and some even solved problems that were theoretically beyond them.  Syed describes her conclusion (page 117):

. . .the gap in performance was opened up by something completely different: their respective beliefs or mindsets.

If you believe talent is innate, mistakes prove you haven’t got it so you give up. If you believe talent is the result of effort, mistakes tend to spur you on. These mindsets become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Further studies introduced praise for effort rather than ‘talent’ with predictable results. In fact, feedback of many kinds is essential if we are to enhance our performance at any complex skill. He uses the expression growth mindset (page 128) to describe the attitude that is created when effort is seen as the pathway to excellence and is encouraged as such.

Before I move on to briefly consider how this maps onto spiritual growth and social change in the widest sense, I’d like to come back to his point, quoted earlier, that the talent ‘theory of expertise’ is ‘insidious in practice.’

Dweck located the reasons for Enron‘s spectacular failure in what Syed summarises as a ‘culture that exalted talent above the possibilities of personal development.’ This caused the company to promote people it viewed as talented to decision-making positions of high authority even when they had no prior experience in the area of finance of which they were put in charge.  She wrote (quoted on page 132):

. . . by putting complete faith in talent, Enron did a fatal thing: it created a culture that worshipped talent, thereby forcing its employees to look and act extraordinarily talented.

Basically, it forced them into the fixed mindset. And we know a lot about that. We know that people with the fixed mindset do not admit and correct their deficiencies.

Any one who has embarked seriously on a spiritual path will relate to much of this, I think. Practice is integral to spiritual progress. The Bahá’í Faith emphasises for example the strong link between the kind of efforts we make, the beliefs we have about the results of that effort and the achievement of eventual excellence for the betterment of society, something that Syed touched upon when he wrote ‘[purposeful practice] is all but neglected in the areas where we all stand to benefit.’

In a letter written on his behalf, Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, stated (27 February 1928):

No matter how strong the measure of Divine grace, unless supplemented by personal, sustained and intelligent effort it cannot become fully effective and be of any real and abiding advantage.

That’s an example of the need to practice. What we believe also matters:

When the will and the desire are strong enough, the means will be found and the way opened . . .

(The Guardian to the National Assembly of the United States, 21 September 1957: quoted in Living the Life, page 38)

A belief in the power of Divine Assistance is also of critical importance here.  It is easy to scoff at this from a materialistic point of view, but, even if there were no God it could still be important and effective to believe in His power to help. This is what makes it unwise for evangelical atheists to do a demolition job on God and why they’d do better to target the myth of talent as the idol in need of destruction.

As Syed so clearly explains, certain kinds of belief are immensely beneficial regardless of their truth value. Having referred to the health benefits of religious belief (page 148), he moves onto consider the impact of strong belief upon performance (page 158):

Why should a sportsman convince himself he will win when he knows that there is every possibility he will lose? Because to win, one must proportion one’s belief, not to the evidence, but to whatever the mind can usefully get away with. To win, one must surgically remove doubt – rational and irrational – from the mind.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá puts it most powerfully when he says: ‘As ye have faith so shall your powers and blessings be.’ (Star of the West: Vol 12, No. 16. page 250).

So that’s the effort and the belief. The how is also critical. Just to practice any old how is not enough. When the central body of the Faith, the Universal House of Justice, discussed the essence of spiritual practice they did not just tell us what to do to make it count: they also made it very clear how we were to do it. If we take a look at the first three of what they regard as the Essential Requisites for Spiritual Growth the point is obvious:

1. The recital each day of one of the Obligatory Prayers with pure-hearted devotion.

2. The regular reading of the Sacred Scriptures, specifically at least each morning and evening, with reverence, attention and thought.

3. Prayerful meditation on the Teachings, so that we may understand them more deeply, fulfil them more faithfully, and convey them more accurately to others.

What goes with the actions? ‘Pure-hearted devotion’ goes with prayer, ‘reverence, attention and thought’ goes with reading, and meditation has to be ‘prayerful.’

Shoghi Effendi resting place ex enwiki

The top of the column at the Guardian's Resting Place in London

And this is what is required, by implication, before we will be able to achieve the fourth thing: ‘Striving every day to bring our behaviour more into accordance with the high standards that are set forth in the Teachings.’ Not a big ask then. But everything in Syed’s book, and all the evidence that stands behind it, demonstrates that such sustained effort changes us and will change the social world within which we live, if enough of us make anything like this level of effort.

And if we are to rise to the needs of the times, as Bahá’ís believe we must, and lift our civilisation to a far higher level, nothing less is required of us than efforts on this scale, as other posts on this blog have attempted to explain (links to them all can be found at the 6th paragraph of this previous post‘s link).

I am grateful to Syed for the clarity with which he has shown that practice can shift us nearer to perfection – and not just in sport but in society as a whole.

Read Full Post »

. . . . man must strive that his reality may manifest virtues and perfections, the light whereof may shine upon everyone.

(Bahá’í Administration: page 9)

Do you think excellence at an activity is a gift or is it earned?

Sir Michael, a character played by James Fox in a recent recent episode of ‘Midsomer Murders,’ clearly thought it was a gift handed down in the genes and deranged his whole life around that creed (I won’t say more in case I spoil the plot, if such a plot can be spoiled at all). Apparently most of us believe the same or something like it, much to our disadvantage. It’s the result of natural talent, we conclude, rather than hardwork so if I haven’t already got it it’s not worth trying to acquire it.

Over the last few decades it has been slowly becoming apparent that this is nonsense. Previous posts have referred, for example, to Jeffrey Schwartz‘s hard-headed look at the issue in The Mind and the Brain. Practice may not make you perfect but it raises your capacity beyond your wildest dreams and changes your brain in the process. All you need to do is stick at it for long enough with the right attitude. We’ll come back to that in a moment.

Towards of the close of his book Schwartz writes (page 371):

We have been blind to the power of the will to direct attention in ways that can alter the brain. Perhaps, as the discoveries about the power of directed mental effort systematically to alter brain structure and function attract public awareness, we will give greater weight, instead, to the role of volition.

Schwartz’s book, while written for the general reader, is not the most accessible text in the world, brilliant though it is.

When it comes to attracting public awareness to his basic thesis, there is a much better candidate. It’s called Bounce. I nearly didn’t buy Matthew Syed‘s book because I thought it would just be a rather predictable rehash of what I had already learned from sources such as Schwartz. I only got it in the end because I needed to spend at least £10 in the book shop (I’m not saying which one – they’ve already got far too many branches) to get Eat Pray Love extremely cheap.

It was definitely a smart move – buying the book I mean, not devising the special offer.

Syed pulls all the research and thinking together mostly around the subject of sport, though he does throw in other examples such as chess and music to enrich the mix.

From the point of view of this post his main points at the start of the book cut to the chase.

He quotes Anders Ericsson‘s study of violinists in which Anders attempts to determine what distinguishes the very best from all the others. The result was clear (page 12):

Purposeful practice was the only factor distinguishing the best from the rest.

(He doesn’t waste words, as you can see.) It takes at least 10,000 hours of dedicated practice to make an expert. He goes onto illustrate how, in any complex field whether it be firefighting, chess, violin playing or table tennis, expertise is entirely dependent upon long experience of a certain kind.

He explains what kind of practice he’s talking about (page 58):

It is only possible to clock up meaningful practice if an individual has made an independent decision to devote himself to whatever field of expertise. He has to care about what he is doing, not because a parent or a teacher says so, but for its own sake.

The fascination of his book is largely in the parts I am missing out. He gives examples from his own experience, from interviews with people that he’s met and from his reading, that bring the whole subject to life. His telling of the story of the Polgar family (pages 60-66) – Laszlo, Klara and their children – is a key and compelling illustration of his point. All their three children, from a background of zero chess expertise, became chess prodigies, and the father had predicted that they would right from the start provided he gave them the right opportunities to practice.  And they loved to practice, and practice, and practice. His eldest daughter became the first woman grandmaster ever, and his youngest daughter the youngest grandmaster, male or female, ever.

Some people think it was coincidence but I think the father proved his point. The many other examples Syed gives simply hammer more nails into the coffin of the myth of natural talent. This is a more suitable myth for the evolutionists to target than the idea of God as we will see very clearly later.

However, it isn’t enough to practice because you want to. There is more to it than that (page 72):

Mere experience, if it is not matched by deep concentration, does not translate into excellence.

Schwartz’s book constantly reinforces the same conclusion about the power of deliberate and sustained attention, while at the same time emphasising that anyone with a reasonably intact brain – and that’s almost all of us, even those of us with strokes and other brain injuries – is capable of learning to focus in this way if they want to.

When I shared some of Syed’s ideas with a friend of mine, she told me about her experience with knitting – yes, she definitely said knitting:

I find that most people don’t have much of a belief in excellence being earned and they do tend to assume that ability is mostly genetic.  I don’t know where that belief comes from, but it is not in the least bit empowering and is actually wrong.  I think I sub-consciously believed it myself until recently, and then I changed my belief only because of my own direct experience.  I decided to start knitting about two years ago and at first I was actually quite bad at it, worse than some of my friends.  However, I have knitted in every spare moment I’ve had since then.  Now, I have knitted garments that are so good that people can’t believe I hand-knitted them myself.  . . . . . I am definitely not gifted.  I have just had a heck of a lot of practice over the past two years.   Also, some bits of my knitting were so difficult to get right that I unravelled and re-started it eight or ten times until I managed it, focusing very hard on it and learning an awful lot as a result.

Before he moves on to consider another aspect of practice that is of critical importance, Syed makes a point of fundamental importance that I will return to again later (page 103-104):

It is only in sport that the benefits of purposeful practice are accrued by individuals at the expense of other individuals, and never by society as a whole. But this is precisely the area in which purposeful practice is pursued with a vengeance, while it is all but neglected in the areas where we all stand to benefit. . . . The talent theory of expertise is not merely flawed in theory; it is insidious in practice, robbing individuals and institutions of the motivation to change themselves and society.

It will take another post to begin to unpack this at greater length and to show how the ideas he is conveying here extend far beyond sport, not only to finance but to spirituality as well.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »