Mindsets Matter

January 2020
Campers jumping at the same time

An Interview with David Yeager, PhD

David Yeager, PhD, is an experimental development psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin. He researches and works to find solutions for adolescent health problems, including bullying, depression, academic achievement, cheating, trust, and healthy eating. He has co-authored work on grit and grit testing with Angela Duckworth, PhD, and on growth mindset with Carol Dweck, PhD. Yeager’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Scientific American, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, and Nature.
 

Did you attend camp as a child? Were you a staff member? What do you remember most about your time at camp?

I did. I went to camp Ozark in Arkansas for 11 summers. My only job before I was a middle school teacher was summer camp counselor.

I worked in summer camps for low-income students and that got me into thinking about kids in other countries. So, for four months I worked at an orphanage in Chile.

Camp is my most influential experience in terms of my professional life.
 

Your research focuses on mindsets. What is “mindset,” and why is it important?

How a kid makes sense of the world matters for how they cope with it. That’s a powerful idea because we often think of kids as resilient or not, having coping skills or not, motivated or not. But what we see with mindsets is that your beliefs can affect whether you’re positive or not, and your beliefs can be changed. And there are multiple dimensions to mindset.
 

What is growth mindset versus fixed mindset?

“Growth mindset” is the notion that people can change their abilities or characteristics, whereas a “fixed mindset” is the opposite.

You mentioned there are multiple dimensions to mindset, such as belonging mindset, for example. What is that?

Belonging mindset is a person’s perspective on whether they are being accepted and valued in a setting. That belonging mindset affects how they deal with feelings of isolation and how they take steps to feel integrated in a community.
 

And what is purpose mindset?

That’s the idea that the learning experiences you have are roots to making a meaningful contribution to the world beyond yourself. That is contrasted with you just work hard to get credentials and work hard for yourself. In the case of purpose mindset, we’re gaining skills we can give to others. That ends up being a motivator for young people.
 

Parents have so many things to consider in raising their kids. We know that knowledge, skills, and dispositions are also important. Where does mindset fall in all of that? Why have you chosen to focus on it in your research?

A couple reasons. One is simply that it’s often a challenge to motivate our young people and very little works. Mindset was working, and I wanted to know more about it. Anyone who works with young people fundamentally believes we can help them improve. Some kids, however, don’t believe they can improve, and I wanted to know how we could change that.

I first started studying a growth mindset of personality. My hypothesis was that kids don’t just have mindsets about learning; some kids have mindsets about character. They think that character — good or bad — can’t change. I became interested in the concept of forgiveness. Under what circumstances do kids forgive their peers if they’ve been wronged by them? It’s hard to be forgiving if you think someone can’t change. A growth mindset should lead to forgiveness.

And while a growth mindset doesn’t always lead to forgiveness, it does lead to kids telling their peers what they did wrong. The growth mindset became a powerful way to reduce aggression among teenagers, especially when you’re talking about bullying or exclusion in middle school and high school.
 

You recently had the results of your study involving growth mindset published in Nature. In your study, and I’m quoting the Nature article here, you addressed “the beliefs of adolescents about the nature of intelligence, leading students to see intellectual abilities not as fixed but as capable of growth in response to dedicated effort, trying new strategies, and seeking help when appropriate. This can be especially important in a society that conveys a fixed mindset (a view that intelligence is fixed), which can imply that feeling challenged and having to put in effort means that one is not naturally talented and is unlikely to succeed” (Yeager, et al., 2019). Please share your thoughts on that.

Nature is the world’s leading scientific publication. It published the discovery of the double helix in DNA and Steven Hawking’s black hole theory. It turns out a study on motivating 15-year-olds to do their homework was considered just as important as black holes and DNA.

We made a short online exercise that students could complete on their own. We kept it short so that we could do it on a very large scale. We evaluated (randomly selected 76 schools of 12,000 around the country). No one has ever tested an educational hypothesis in a random fashion. That’s a problem because those treatments get scaled up and sold to lots of places and may not get generalized.

Through the exercise, students learned the brain could grow like a muscle. Amazingly, we found a growth mindset treatment worked overall in keeping high school students from failing even a year later! Fifty minutes was all it took. It’s as effective as solutions costing $20,000 per kid.

The more interesting finding was it only changed grades in schools that supported a growth mindset. You can’t think of it as a seed you can throw anywhere and it grows. You have to plant the seed, till the soil, water it — and then it grows. So we need to involve counselors and teachers to make this actionable.
 

Most people think of education as a process of learning content over time, but you have had success using distinct, short interventions to improve learning outcomes. How do you see interventions as part of the education process?

Every public high school in America could use the treatment as part of freshman orientation. And we are giving it away for free.

We don’t think schools should stop there. We think they should also work to grow their cultures to support growth mindset.
 

Given the immersive aspect of the summer camp experience, how could camp be an ideal delivery mechanism for mindset interventions?

For students to believe that they can grow and develop, they need examples where that was true, and camp is a safe place where they can gain these mindsets (growth, purpose, and belonging) that they can use throughout the year.

The supportive environment of camp and the opportunity to try new challenges is mind training. You start out not knowing archery, and by the end you know how to shoot. You start out not knowing how to navigate the ropes course, and by the end you know how to make it across. It’s an intensified experience overcoming fears and learning challenges with the support of others.
 

What advice would you give to camp professionals who want to increase their impact on their campers and counselors?

One: When you see a kid do something that is impressive, where they’re overcoming their fears, notice it and name it for the kid, so they don’t overlook it themselves. We can’t assume that they understand overcoming a challenge as a time where they used a growth mindset or achieved a purpose. Catch them being good, notice when they use a certain mindset and name it, so they don’t miss the lesson.

Two: Especially at the end of sessions, help kids engage in reflection on how the mindsets and skills they’ve learned at camp will help them prepare for situations they face outside of camp. They might think, “I overcame my fears at camp, but that’s because of my counselors; I can’t do that at high school.” We have to help kids bridge the gap between mindsets at camp and mindsets in their real lives.
 

In your mind, what are camps uniquely positioned to do in terms of lasting beneficial impact on children?

They’re uniquely poised for two or three reasons. The first is it’s a different setting for kids. If they’ve had failure at school or at home, the different setting allows them to try out a new way of thinking in a different place. They get to try on the growth mindset without falling back into how they thought before.

Another thing is the relationships with counselors are usually more intensely supportive, and that temporarily gives kids the superpower of confidence to do new things. That means they can impress themselves in ways they can remember when they leave camp.

The third is that the time scale for camp is short enough that kids can go through a whole cycle of things that would take a whole school year to do. In a normal school year, you start out thinking you have no friends, you have some ups and downs, and at the end you have friends. And that may take nine months. At camp that all happens much more quickly. It’s a faster way to practice all these really good mindsets that you could never do that many times in a school year.

Summer camp is such a powerful investment in the health and well-being of our young people, and it’s such important work that people need to appreciate the power of. The science is really supportive now of the importance of summer camp. Everyone who works at camp should be happy to see the work validated in that way.

REFERENCE

Yeager, D. S., Hanselman, P., Crosnoe, R., Muller, C., Tipton, E., Schneider, B., Hulleman, C. S., Hinojosa, C. P., Paunesku, D., Romero, C., Flint, K., Roberts, A., Trott, J., Iachan, R., Buontempo, J., Yang, S. M., Carvalho, C. M., Hahn, P. R., Gopalan, M., Mhatre, P., Ferguson, R., Duckworth, A. L., & Dweck, C. S. (2019, August 7). A national experiment reveals where a growth mindset improves achievement. Nature. Retrieved from nature.com/articles/s41586-019-1466-y

Photo courtesy of Alford Lake Camp, Hope, Maine.