The First Secret to Hacking Education

When I was in kindergarten, I took an IQ test. Wait too long, my parents were told, and you can’t accurately judge ‘native intellectual ability.’ So at 5 years old, my ability was quantified and crystalized: verbal good, math not so much.

Fast forward a number of years, and I decide to write an iPhone app. When I struggle to learn programming languages, I’m encouraged to experiment, to use each failed test to eliminate a wrong approach, and I eventually learn to code increasingly complex programs. 


Dr. Carol Dweck (Stanford University) has spent decades studying how students react when exposed to difficult material: some students reject difficult projects or material because they feel they ‘aren’t wired that way’ while others view such challenges as intriguing puzzles. The first group believes they are successful only if they already know how to solve the problem, while the latter group approaches difficult problems by problem-solving and breaking complex problems down into simpler steps until they figure the problem out.

Dweck argues that the first group has a fixed mindset because they believe that talents and intellectual ability are innate and unchanging — what we are born with, we die with and nothing we do in the decades intervening will let us measurably improve our abilities in a particular area. She contrasts this with the second group’s growth mindset, which in her words,

is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way — in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments — everyone can change and grow through application and experience.


Understanding Dweck’s research is essential to my larger exploration of how to hack education — we will learn only if we first believe that we can learn. When we teach children that they can improve, they become willing to try new things, regardless of how difficult those things are. When we train children to adopt a growth mindset, they do not view failure as the end of a project, but as a clue that they need to approach that problem from a different angle.

Failure becomes a diagnostic tool rather than a label. 

So, how do parents adopt strategies that encourage growth mindsets? Dweck’s book encourages parents to change how they talk to their kids about the learning process. Instead of praising a child’s ability, she recommends that parents focus on how their children achieved (or didn’t achieve) a particular goal. For example, encouraging kids to view a bad test grade as evidence that they need to study the material differently rather than just claiming to be ‘bad’ at math. And vice versa, reminding a child that the A+ she just made reflects how much studying she did rather than any innate talent at math. Dweck argues that this approach will improve kids’ academic improvement because it teaches kids that improvement is a product of effort and not (just) of talent.


Some studies have struggled to replicate Dweck’s findings. They find that only some students benefit from shifting to a new mindset, while others tend to sabotage their own work, even when they know that they can improve if they try harder. I think this is because Dweck’s work does not teach students how to improve, just that they can. Knowing that I can learn to write an iPhone app doesn’t make me less frustrated when I’m not sure why my code doesn’t work. For kids (and adults!) who may not be trained in problem solving or critical thinking, knowing they can improve and actually doing so can be a very different challenge. And if we cannot diagnose why we always fail, we will easily slip back into a fixed mindset. Dr. Dweck’s research leaves out any extensive discussion of how to think critically or deeply about problems.

While her research is a vital place to start an exploration of how to hack education, it’s only the beginning.


Chelsea Avirett

About Chelsea Avirett

Chelsea is the founder of Spyglass Tutoring, a Humanities enrichment tutoring service located in Rockland, ME. She has taught English literature to middle school and college students and is also certified (in the state of Georgia) to teach gifted education. She also holds a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She and her husband moved to Midcoast Maine in 2013 and love the excitement and vibrancy of the area’s creative economy.