“I once asked a group of teachers, ‘What is the most important thing you ever learned?” recalled Carol Dweck, the Lewis & Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, last night in the third and concluding “Medalist Conversation” of Teachers College’s Convocation Week. “One said, ‘I’ve learned every student has something to teach me.’” The broader takeaway: “Remember, that every student has something to contribute to the world,” Dweck told viewers. “And with the pandemic, poverty and undermining of democracy I don’t think there has been a time in my life when this has been more important.” 

Watch the conversation between Carol Dweck and Nathan Holbert.

Dweck’s conversation with Nathan Holbert, Assistant Professor of Communication, Media and Learning Technologies, capped three nights of faculty conversations with the three 2020 Distinguished Service Medalists — Dweck, anti-gun violence advocate Shannon Watts and Harvard Psychology Professor Mahzarin Banaji. The honorees were scheduled to address last year’s graduating classes prior to the cancellation of traditional Convocation exercises. [Watch Watts’ conversation with Sonali Rajan, Associate Professor of Health Education, and Banaji’s conversation with Caryn Block, Professor of Psychology & Education.]

Few have done more than Dweck to champion the notion that all children can learn and achieve. Her landmark 1975 study, demonstrating that children with learned helplessness behavior could significantly improve their performance when taught to understand failure as a lack of effort rather than a lack of ability, has become a touchstone for teachers, parents, coaches, business leaders and mentors in all walks of life. And in 2007, her bestselling book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, introduced lay readers to the concept of “fixed” and “growth mindsets” — the former positing that inherent intelligence alone determines an individual’s capacity for development, and the latter holding that nurture, experience, encouragement and love are the key differentials that expand understanding and, with it, the capacity to learn.

Holbert, Director of TC’s Snow Day Learning Lab, characterized growth mindset as instrumental to “helping us think about the value of knowing that learning is something that can be improved — a process that includes successes, missteps, challenges and sometimes failures.”

Dweck suggested that acceptance of the value of failure is what often gives educators pause.

Remember, that every student has something to contribute to the world. And with the pandemic, poverty and undermining of democracy I don’t think there has been a time in my life when this has been more important.

— Carol Dweck, Lewis & Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University


“Many teachers take it to mean ‘let’s give students a growth mindset as a tool to use,’”  she said. “They put a chart in the front of the room or maybe give a lecture. But they don’t change practices that support learning from mistakes. It works when you create culture that promotes the development of student abilities by making progress visible. The emphasis should be on agency in learning, the courage to express what they don’t know, interest and support for their own and one another’s mistakes.”

Yet such an emphasis is particularly at odds with systems of education that prioritize test results, Dweck said.

“Why have we made teachers teach to the test?” she asked. “Let’s give teachers autonomy to create amazing classrooms again.” To such ends, she added, “I know the contributions of you, the graduates, will be monumental. You are the very people our world needs now.”