Mindsets and Competitive Plasticity

Recently I took delivery of two books I ordered: Mindset, The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck, and The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge.

The former seems the rather tortured product of a Stanford U. psychologist and an unnamed editor who seemed to want to take a good, scientifically-based idea and pitch it to a self-help audience that they believe are not too interested in the data. Wrong (and if you read the Amazon reviews, you get a strong sense of exactly how wrong. Dweck comes across as mostly sincere but often condescending, particularly if you really believe the story she tells that her students sat her down and ordered her to write this book. The basic idea is sound, however: that a growth midset–being open to challenge and learning and striving for excellence–leads to considerably better learning (and business, parenting, and relationship success) than the fixed mindset of people who choose “easy” tasks they can do well so they can feed themselves (or placate themselves) on the laurels they achieve by succeeding every time. According to Dweck, praise is good only if it is praise for effort that leads to more effort. Learners need to be challenged more and encouraged to embrace challenges more, persist in the face of setbacks and learn from criticism. Dweck says the difference between the achievement of these two groups, the growth mindset group and the fixed mindset group is astounding. Her research path developed early in her career when she began to see two types of abilities in children: “…a fixed ability that needs to be proven and a changeable ability that can be developed through learning” (pg. 15). Some kids feed on praise and success and thus never challenge themselves. The job of educators is to help learners understand how brains are like muscles that can be stretched and then continuously challenge learners and support their effort.

A complimentary notion comes up in Doidge’s book, which is about neuroplasticity. In an early chapter, the topic of competitive plasticity arises in a section on language learning. Competitive plasticity is the notion that brain resources are “turned over” to other uses when we do not practice or engage in a certain skill. In this view, first and second languages (for example) compete for brain real estate and when we stop making use of the second language, the first language will just take over the parts of the brain no longer being used. Competitive plasticity also explains why unlearning bad habits (those so-hard-to-fix repeated language and usage errors, for instance) is so challenging–the bad habits are already established and in place with competitive advantage (pg. 58-9).

Dweck’s book encourages us to “learn and help learn” but the combative metaphors flying around in the the section on competitive plasticity in Doidge’s book suggest that more than just encouragement is necessary when it comes to learning a second language. Indeed between the covers of both books, the harsh reality of language learning–the vast amount of time necessary, the need to start early, the need to continually challenge learners, acclimatize them to criticism, and get them able to handle setbacks by trying harder–becomes clear. For EFL settings, the wisdom of these two authors points to more time for language learning, particularly in intensive courses if possible, and the necessity of encouraging learners (realistically only those who are ready and able to make the effort) to max out their time with the language as independent learners. This means access (i.e., internet) and tools and techniques for immersive participation. It means we teachers and our paltry lessons and programs are not enough. We knew that already, of course, though we often don’t embrace it.

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