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A good idea, not such a good read.
on February 20, 2007
I'll begin with a summary which allows you, dear reader, to decide if you should read any more of this review:
The irony of Dweck's book is that if the reader understands and believes what she's saying, then after the first chapter that reader has no reason to keep reading.
And now, the long (Dweck) version. I was first made aware of this book and its ideas in a seminar on motivating students about a month and a half ago. As presented in the seminar, these seemed like great ideas: intelligence is not fixed, it is learnable, changeable, even teachable. Asking the right questions and making the right comments in the classroom can change the way students approach learning and thinking, and encourage them to grow and learn much more than one might expect. Fantastic. The approach seemed sensible, the logic intuitive, the results believable. I adapted some of the material for a class and sought out the book.
It seemed odd when I found the book on the library shelf not with psychological or pedagogical research, but near books of self-help and affirmation, such as Julia Cameron's `The Artists's Way.' Ah, I thought, it's just a categorization issue. Not something to worry about. But I should've worried, as I'll explain shortly.
Returning to Dweck, I found the ideas she presents - or rather, singular "idea," since there really isn't more than one - to be quite interesting, as I'd hoped. Unfortunately, the book itself isn't. As I said earlier, reading a single chapter gets the point across: intelligence is not fixed, it can be changed. It is only our "mindset" that holds us back. If we believe we can't learn, if we believe our abilities are restricted, then they will be. Our limitations are learned and set by ourselves. If we think we can improve ourselves, we will. If we insist that we're unable to achieve, we won't. (Dweck offers a few hasty caveats to prevent readers from believing they can will themselves to do absolutely anything, but always as afterthoughts.)
That's it. That's the core and kernel of the book, summarized in my few weak sentences. While it was only natural of Dweck to take more space than this, there are limits. Frankly, the main argument of the book could have been made convincingly in a twenty page pamphlet. With a thoughtful design and organization, perhaps a very readable, informative, and even inspirational, tome of 150 or so pages. But certainly not as the rambling, repetitive 288-page critter as this book now exists.
As I read the first three chapters of this book (and, in full disclosure, that is as far as I got, about one-third through), several things became clear to me. Besides the dearth of ideas - how far can one stretch this simple thought? - I began to understand why "Mindset" was categorized in the self-help section and not placed with more scholarly work. For one thing, there is little of scholarly weight here. Dweck frequently refers to studies and research, but most of this is not available to the interested reader. The endnotes are strangely non-standard, making it difficult to identify sources, let alone locate them. Much of the evidence cited appears to be unpublished and unvetted research by Dweck and her colleagues (or students). Several searches on Dweck and her co-researchers turned up nothing. The general bibliography, while something to go on, is also very thin. Dweck herself appears to have the credibility and scholarly bona fides one might expect from a PhD working at Columbia, but they are not in evidence here.
In addition, the format of the chapters was disappointing. It revealed why the book belongs in the self-help section. Each chapter consists of a mixture of assertions and affirmations from the author, impressive-sounding but undocumented research, and effusive testimonials - I can think of no other word to use - by students and others whose lives have been changed by Dweck's idea. As a motivational tract, it works. As a scholarly work, to be taken seriously, to offer up convincing and repeatable proof of its ideas, it falls short. It is reasonably well-written, it is entertaining (numbing repetition aside), it is provocative and confident. As a useful piece of research, it disappoints.
As I've stated more than once, the idea of this book is excellent. It is the execution of which I am critical. I look forward to a future volume by Dweck or her colleagues that presents more tangible proof and documentation, with less reliance on feel-good anecdotes and faith in the author's assertions.