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Don't box yourself in: Learning with a growth mindset

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“Even if you aren’t great at something, it doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing,” said Gina Hausknecht, professor of English and associate dean of student academics at Coe College in Cedar Rapids.

With zero expectations of greatness, Hausknecht took up piano as an adult, after not playing a note for over 30 years.

“I’m not necessarily trying to be good, but it’s unbelievably rewarding to go from not being able to play a piece to being able to play it,” she said.

Hausknecht works to maintain a “growth mindset,” a concept developed by Carol Dweck, that asserts that one’s abilities and skills are not permanently fixed.

Hausknecht said it’s a simple, but important, concept. “It means that intelligence can grow and abilities can grow based on effort and practice. You can learn how to do new things.”

The opposite state is a “fixed mindset,” which happens when people decide they are good at certain things but inherently bad at others.

“It kills me when my 15-year-old daughter said she’s not good at math,” Hausknecht said. It’s a perfect example of a fixed mindset because these ideas often start when we’re still in school, according to Hausknecht.

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“There’s a lot of sorting in K-12 — figuring out what you’re supposed to be good at and then doing that thing.”

She thinks that sorting can be limiting as you go through your life and career and continue to believe you have always been bad at certain things, even if you don’t have a lot of evidence to back that up.

Hausknecht said people may not always realize the consequences of being in a fixed mindset, like how it affects your response to criticism.

“If you really don’t believe you can get better, why would you care?”

In a growth mindset, it’s easier to embrace and learn from criticism.

Envy is a typical response to other people’s success in a fixed mindset because you assume you would never be able to achieve similar success.

“In a growth mindset, on the other hand, you’re inspired and motivated by other people’s successes,” Hausknecht said.

She calls herself a “learning styles skeptic,” and said the model of traditional learning styles (auditory, visual, etc.) can, in some cases, be just as limiting as having a fixed mindset.

“There’s no question that people’s brains process things differently, but my concern is that you can put too much weight on one way to learn and let other skills atrophy.”

If someone was told as a student that they are an auditory learner, for example, they might not make an effort to learn things visually. For a lot of people, Hausknecht emphasized that learning styles can be better thought of as preferences rather than an inability to learn things in multiple ways.

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To be open to learning, “You have to have faith that growth is possible,” Hausknecht said. “We’re all driven by fear at some level, and we’re afraid of exposing weaknesses, so we stay in our comfort zone.”

Hausknecht thinks it’s important for educators, in particular, to take classes and learn new things so they can feel all the intimidation that comes with it.

“I’m inspired when I see adults challenging themselves to learn and grow even if they aren’t in an academic field.”

In addition to learning piano, in recent years Hausknecht has taken yoga classes, Tai chi classes, and even tried sprint triathlons.

“I had no interest in it at first,” she said, but she enjoyed the experience and even encouraged friends to try it.

It’s hard not to worry about what others will think if you start doing something like suddenly running triathlons, but Hausknecht thinks it’s healthy to let go of some of the old narratives about what you’re supposedly good or bad at in order to allow yourself to try new things.

“What’s safe is not always what’s good for us,” she said.

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