No, that’s not a typo. Schlimmbesserung is a German word that means “to make things worse through an effort to improve”.
What if our efforts to improve students’ Mindsets were schlimmbesserung? What if they were backfiring and creating Fixed Mindsets instead of Growth Mindsets?
This is exactly what teachers risk doing when they jump on the Growth Mindset bandwagon without a deep understanding of their own Mindsets. They adopt Growth Mindset strategies, but often superficially, and this can have unintended consequences.
For example, many teachers have adopted “praise effort” as a Growth Mindset strategy. Unfortunately, in some cases, “praise effort” has unintentionally become “praise struggling students for effort”. Instead of the intended growth message about effort, this sends the highly fixed message that effort is only required for some students.
A similar schlimmbesserung came from a principal I met a few years ago. He told me that during his whole career, he had been telling students “hard work will beat talent, when talent doesn’t work very hard”. He thought he was sending a Growth Mindset message to students about the importance of hard work and effort. In fact, the opposite was true. Implicit in his statement was that hard work was necessary to make up for a lack of talent – and, by implication, his students weren’t talented. To make things worse, it suggested to these students they needed to hope that the talented people didn’t start working hard!
In a similar way, I worry about the number of teachers adopting “not yet” as a mantra in the classroom. Many of these teachers have let “not yet” become “still not yet”. They have failed to adopt the pedagogies that teach students how to achieve growth. The promised “not yet” that is never achieved, turns into a negative Mindset Mover when students fail to grow, leading to a form of learned failure.
The result of these misapplied strategies is schlimmbesserung. Our attempts to develop Growth Mindsets backfire and create Fixed Mindsets in students.
Why does this happen? Because our Mindset is part of our unconscious bias. It guides our actions when we are not paying attention. And, although we might want a Growth Mindset and perhaps even believe we have one, unless we’ve spent the time carefully nurturing a Growth Mindset in ourselves, our actions, over time, will reflect our true Mindset. As Professor Carol Dweck puts it, “A Growth Mindset is not a declaration. It’s a journey.” It’s something we must continually reflect on and work at.
So, although our intention is to praise all students for effort, we may end up only praising the struggling students. Things as subtle as our tone of voice when praising one student compared to another can communicate volumes about our beliefs about their abilities. Perhaps we may unconsciously direct all the most challenging questions to a few students who we perceive as more able. In our reports, we may even describe one student as “a capable student” and another as “a very capable student” – revealing our unconscious belief that the second student is inherently smarter than the first.
Each of the above subtly but consistently communicates and reinforces to students our underlying beliefs about their fixed abilities and intelligence. Our efforts to create a Growth Mindset have exactly the opposite effect. A schlimmbesserung.
This is what Dweck and her colleague Susan Mackie have identified as a False Mindset. Someone with a False Mindset intellectually understands Fixed and Growth Mindsets. They may even advocate for a Growth Mindset and attempt to implement Growth Mindset strategies. But because they haven’t spent the time to deeply examine their own Mindset and nurture a more growth-oriented Mindset, their actions communicate more fixed messages.
So, what’s the lesson here for school leaders?
When it comes to Mindsets, doing nothing may well be a better option than doing a little, badly.
We need to avoid the superficial approaches and quick fixes. If changing Mindsets was easy, we would have worked out how to do it long ago. To prevent schlimmbesserung, our approaches need to be grounded in a deep understanding not only of what a Growth Mindset is, but how to achieve growth through Learning Agility.