Yes, change is possible
I have written a number of times in the past about the work of Stanford University professor of educational psychology Carol S. Dweck. But the occasion of a new article in the January 1 Scientific America, "The Secret to Raising Smart Kids," provides an opportunity to do so again.
That title is misleading. For one thing, Dweck's research has implications far-removed from the classroom, including for work and personal relationships. Without knowing it, she is a major mussar thinker.
Basically, Dweck divides the approaches to learning into two categories: helpless vs. mastery-oriented. Those, in turn, are the outgrowth of two different mind-sets – one that might be called a fixed mind-set and the other a growth mind-set. (Dweck's most recent book is simply called Mindset.)
The central question animating her work is: Why do some students give up when they encounter difficulty, whereas others who are not more skilled continue to strive and learn. Part of the answer lies in the explanations lay in individuals' beliefs about why they failed.
Those who believe that they failed because of a lack of ability and that ability is fixed develop a state of helplessness. Mastery-oriented kids, however, think that intelligence is malleable and can be developed through education and hard work. The students with a growth mind-set feel that learning is a more important goal in school than high grades.
Nowhere is such an attitude more important than in Torah learning where the goal of every mechanech must be to instill in students the feeling that there is no more important activity than Torah learning because that learning binds one to HaKadosh Baruch Hu, which is the essential goal of our lives.
That connection does not depend on one's grades.
The best and most important piece of mussar I ever received came shortly after my arrival at Ohr Somayach. My chavrusah announced after our first hour of learning, "I'm not quick like you." But within weeks he moved up to a higher shiur, while I languished for months. When I remarked upon this disparity, a fellow student pointed out in the most succinct possible fashion: "The difference between you and him is that he wants to know the dvar Hashem, you're still worried about being first in your class." He was so right.
Confronted with setbacks, such as a poor test grade, those with a growth mind-set, whose focus in on the learning itself, resolve to study harder or look for new strategies to master the material. Those who have a fixed mind-set may decide never to take that subject again – not an option for chareidi males learning Gemara, for instance – or to find a way to cheat on the next test, which is hardly an avenue to drawing close to Hashem.
Feelings of helplessness and passivity are not a function of low ability. Indeed they are often found in those blessed with great natural gifts who misunderstood the meaning of those gifts. The Scientific American article begins with a case-study of Jonathan (a composite). Jonathan sailed through elementary school, completely his assignments easily and received high grades. He wondered how his fellow students could take so long. Jonathan's parents frequently told him how gifted he was.
But then in junior high, where the material became more demanding, Jonathan simply stopped working at all and his grades plummeted. All his parents' reassurances about how smart he was failed to motivate him. By virtue of the ease of his early learning, Jonathan came to associate intelligence with never having to work, and thus when he was first challenged, he simply entered a helpless mode and concluded that all the early praise of his gifts was nonsense.
His early ease in learning and the praise that came with it proved to be a trap for Jonathan. Anyone who has learned in yeshivos knows how poor a predictor natural gifts often prove to be of eventual success in learning, and how often are roshei yeshiva disappointed because they were captured by a student's natural gifts.
FORTUNATELY, DWECK provides a good deal advice of what parents can do to help their children adopt a growth mind-set. First, when they tell stories of successful people – in our context gedolei Torah – don't emphasize their preternatural gifts, but their dedication and hard work. Best of all, find examples of great talmidei chachamim who did not stand out in their younger years for their outstanding gifts. (There are many.)
Second, when praising children, praise their effort and hard work. Don't tell them that their success is the product of their being so smart or some other natural ability. Third, share with them all the scientific evidence that the brain is also a muscle and can be strengthened. Dweck reports on the significant improvement of low-achieving students from just reading an article entitled, "You can grow your brain." One of her subjects, who was in the test group for Brainology, an interactive program to encourage a growth mind-set, reported, "My favorite thing from Brainology is the neurons part where you learn something there are connections and they keep growing. I always picture that when I'm in school."
The implications of Dweck's typology of learning approaches, extend, as I said, far outside the formal educational context. Researchers have found, for instance, that workplace managers with a fixed mind-set are much less likely to welcome feedback from their employees. Others have found that the quality and longevity of relationships depends heavily on the mind-set of the partners.
For those who assume that human personality traits are basically fixed, working on problems in a relationship will often seem to be an exercise in futility. Those who assume that people can change and grow, however, are much more likely to express concerns to a partner in order to work on the relationship and find solutions.
AS IT HAPPENS, just as I was contemplating a piece on Professor Dweck's research, a copy of How Can I Change for Heaven's Sake?: A practical ten-step plan to improve the ABCs (Attitude, Behavior, and Character of Your Life by Rabbi Doniel Frank alighted on my desk. Most of us ask this question at least once a year, often as Neilah approaches and our options are limited to begging for another year on credit.
And indeed, Rabbi Frank's short book is structured around a series of meetings between a protagonist and a rabbinic mentor that begin two days before Rosh Hashanah. It takes little more than an hour to read, but I would be shocked if anyone does not read it numerous times.
How Can I Change offers precisely the kind of concrete plan that we all look for and rarely find, after we realize that there is much about us that needs fixing. (That itself is one of the key steps.) Based on familiar Torah sources, it will leave every reader in a growth mind-set filled with confidence that meaningful, lasting change is possible. There can be no bigger gift.
The Advantages of Being the Minority
Last week I wrote about Gil Tal, who completed at least one journey through Shas, while living on Ben Ami, a secular Moshav near Nahariya. My focus was what we can all learn from Tal's determination.
But there is another lesson as well. Though the Ben Ami defines itself as secular, and that remains the dominate ambience among the old-timers, for the past eight years Rabbi Yehudah Golombeck and his family have lived on the moshav. It was Rabbi Golombock who guided Gil Tal's learning and who insisted that he must also learn Talmud, along with all the other learning sedarim he had already established.
Rabbi Golombeck is just one example of young rabbinic families placed on secular moshavim and kibbutzim by Rabbi Shlomo Ra'anan's Ayelet HaShachar organization. Today, Ayelet HaShachar sponsors families on over forty yishuvim (down from over 80 due to financial constraints) and each of those families has had a positive impact of dozens of families.
When Rabbi Golombeck first arrived at Ben Ami, the moshav's shul had been closed for twenty years, and there were not even services on Yom Kippur. Every Shabbos, Rabbi Golombeck had to walk several kilometers to Nahariya for a minyan.
Within six months, however, he had opened a Shabbos minyan in an old clubhouse. Today, a beautiful shul has been built. And if Rabbi Golombeck oversleeps the 6:00 a.m. Shachris minyan, he can count on a call from one of the members summoning him. Every night, Rabbi Golombeck learns with members of the moshav in the shul, and he gives multiple shiurim on Shabbos and one evening during the week. A couple of times a month, outside lecturers come to Ben Ami.
One of the keys to the Golembock's success, I would suggest, is that as the only religious family on the yishuv they represent no threat to the secular residents. The residents need not worry that the Golombecks and their four children represent the beachhead of a chareidi invasion. With that threat removed, secular residents are more than ready to learn Torah with them.
If I am right, the greatest kiruv potential might well exist in cities and neighborhoods where the chareidi population is a small minority. It is a hypothesis that will be tested in coming years, as chareidim move out of their own strongholds and the newer chareidi cities can no longer deal with the demand for apartments for new couples. Cities like Afula, Carmiel, Nazereth Ilit, and Tiberias are a crucial component of any future housing solutions for the chareidi community.
A few years back, Rabbi Ra'anan had the idea of putting talmidei chachamim in secular neighborhoods around the country. He advertised in the chareidi press, and received 170 responses, including forty from maggidei shiur and roshei kollel, ready to sacrifice the ease of living in a chareidi neighborhood. Unfortunately, the funding never materialized, but I have no question that each such family would have succeeded in breaking down entrenched stereotypes and much more important teaching much Torah.