Feedback and the growth mindset

I was listening to TED Radio Hour’s “Nudge” episode today. The second segment features Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford and author of Mindset (2006). One exchange jumped out at me.

Carol: We condition [kids] to show that they have talents and abilities all the time, and we think this is the road to their success, but in truth the road to their success is learning how to think through problems, learning how to bounce back from failures. These are the things that create contributions to society.

Guy: So, as a parent, would it have a material impact on my own kids for instance, you know, on the way they kind of approach challenges, if I were to, instead of saying, “Oh, you’re such a great reader” but to say “I’m really proud that you read that book.”

Carol: You know, I wouldn’t say “I’m really proud” because it makes it yours. Then the next book they’ll read to make you proud, rather than because they value it or enjoy it. I would say “Tell me about that book you read, that’s really exciting!”

Guy: Wow, you’re going to completely change the way I parent.

Carol: You know everything sends a message. Just a few different words, sometimes one different word, conveys a whole different world of meaning.

I’m fortunate that many people in my life (parents, teachers, mentors) have nudged me toward a growth mindset. The phrase, “Tell me about that book you read, that’s really exciting!” reminds me in particular of my two grandmothers. I can hear each of them say those words, clear as a bell, in their own way. It’s language that emerges from a lifetime of caring deeply about people. I’m not sure if they also recognized it as a sound cognitive development strategy.

Thinking through each type of feedback:

  • “Oh, you’re such a great reader. (Your talent makes you valuable)
  • “I’m really proud that you read that book. (Your action makes me valuable, or makes you valuable to me)
  • “Tell me about that book you read, that’s really exciting!” (I value your action and your opinion)

I actually think there’s a time and place for each of these, but it’s easy to forget that third step. Growing up, I always knew that Grandma took an interest in what I was reading or drawing or building. I thought it was a natural way to reconnect after we hadn’t seen each other for a while. I’ve since learned that not everybody does this. It takes intentionality to always take an interest in others. It’s also one of the most important ways to help others grow.

Good Enough Golfers

Four gentlemen golfers on the tee of a golf course

Twenty golfers wish to play in foursomes for 5 days. Is it possible for each golfer to play no more than once with any other golfer?

Find out for yourself.

This is known in mathematics as the Social Golfer Problem. Over Thanksgiving 2017, my dad posed a very similar problem: 28 students in discussion groups of size 4, rotated five times so that no two students are grouped together twice – with additional constraints restricting certain students from ever being grouped together. Puzzling over the problem together led us into the world of combinatorics.

It turns out the Social Golfer Problem (and the closely related Kirkman’s Schoolgirl Problem) are solved, but full generalizations of them are hard – even for computers. I went looking for an existing solution and couldn’t find one I was happy with. Dad assured me that it didn’t need to be perfect, just good enough for a teacher trying to organize a group. So I built my own:

Good-Enough Golfers is a near-solver for this class of scheduling problems. It attempts to schedule g x p players into g groups of size p for w weeks such that players meet a minimum number of times. Real solutions to this problem can be extremely slow, but GEG’s approximations are fast and often good enough for real-world purposes.

It’s also free and open-source.