Mindsets, Learning and Classroom Conflict: The Importance of Incremental Thinking

2 Mar

by Caroline Toscano, Center for Educational Innovation

Several years ago, a colleague and I were holding a workshop for teaching assistants on classroom management using case studies. In a particular case, participants were asked to respond to a situation in which students were disengaged and resistant to what the instructor was teaching. One of the participants, a new teaching assistant merely shrugged his shoulders and said quite literally, “I would say the world always needs ditch diggers.”

Hmmm. My colleague and I were wondering what kind of comeback would be most appropriate, yet not too excoriating, for such a statement. However, one of our undergraduate teaching assistants in our workshop panel came to the rescue.

“I am a first-generation college student,” he began in slow, measured beats, “and I find your attitude highly offensive.” He then explained his own background of how difficult it was for him to adjust to the university, and that if all teachers had given up on him as easily as this teaching assistant, he never would have come as far as he had.

Incremental Mindset & Conflict Management

“Giving up” on a student for not being engaged in one’s course can be related to one’s mindset on the malleability of people’s characteristics. Carol Dweck’s work on implicit personality theories views individuals as having either an incremental mindset, in which people believe they can change their personal traits through self- improvement, or an entity mindset, in which people believe their personal traits are fixed and unable to be changed.

As educators, Dweck’s work has multiple implications for us to consider, but preferred conflict management strategies – as invoked by the opening scenario – is the focus here.

In “Voicing Conflict: Preferred Conflict Strategies Among Incremental and Entity Theorists,” Lara Kammrath and Carol Dweck (included below) note that incremental theorists were more likely to be proactive in voicing their concerns in interpersonal conflicts.  On the other hand, entity theorists were more likely to do nothing about interpersonal conflict, believing that since personality is fixed, taking proactive steps toward solving a conflict is likely to be fruitless.

Conflicts within the classroom are part and parcel of teaching.  And one’s mindset toward people’s ability to change can influence how instructors go about addressing such situations. If we see our students as capable of learning through experimentation with new methods of inquiry – as incremental theorists – we can give them much more opportunity to grow as learners.

Related Resources

It is important that we be aware of how we view the malleability of others, as well as ourselves, in effectively dealing with classroom challenges.  The 2006 article by Kammrath and Dweck, Voicing Conflict, helps us in seeing why to and learning ways to act in these ways as educators.

For a second introduction to Carol Dweck’s “mindset” research, take a look at how a St. Catherine University faculty member embeds these ideas when speaking with students as part an early-in-the-term interactive presentation on classroom learning.   We’ll return to applications of Dweck as part of our 30 March post:

JamiePeterson Transcript


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