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Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.

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Posted 18/06/2007 | 2 Comments

I couldn’t help thinking about Bill Duncan’s Wee Book of Calivin last Thursday during the Carol Dweck event. For a start, we were holding the masterclass in Oran Mor, Glasgow. For those who have never had the privilege of being in the building, it is a converted and restored church with many traditional features. As you sit in the auditorium, under Alasdair Gray’s painted ceiling, you cannot help being aware of the stony faces of Calvin, Luther, Knox, Tyndale and others as they are mounted round the hall.

But even without this visual stimulation it was difficult to ignore Scotland’s Calvinist past as it has such resonance with aspects of Dweck’s thesis.

Dweck argues from her empirical research that there are two basic mindsets about achievement. The ‘fixed’ mindset upholds the idea that people’s ability is fairly fixed and not open to change. According to such a view, people are either intelligent, sporty, arty, good at maths etc or they aren’t. This mindset also labels people according to personal characteristics. So people are either good or bad, caring or selfish etc.

The growth mindset has a different starting point. It sees people as essentially malleable. In other words, people aren’t fixed but have huge potential for growth and development and that with enough motivation, effort and good teaching they can become better at almost anything. They can also change many aspects of themselves and their behaviour.

In a nutshell much of my argument about Scotland in The Scots’ Crisis of Confidence is that we are the land of the ‘fixed mindset’. Why should it be particularly strong in Scotland?

The Scots have a tendency to see everything as black or white. This tendency to polarise is characteristic of all Judeo-Christian cultures and derives its power from the Christian belief that God is a single being who is all that is good and pure while the Devil incarnates all that is evil. (This is not the view of eastern or native religions.) In Scotland, the influence of Calvinism may have increased the tendency to polarise even further. Whatever the reason, the Scots tend to see people in very simplistic terms. They are either good or bad; clever or stupid; generous or selfish; talented or hopeless. The old Scottish proverb ‘Ye’re either aa dirt or aa butter’ sums up such a view of people.

In 2004 Bill Duncan, a Scottish teacher and novelist, published his entertaining, though poignant, book The Wee Book of Calvin. The most striking feature of Duncan’s distillation of the Scottish Calvinist mentality is the way that individuals – often children – are judged and labelled. Needless to say the labels are mainly damning and suggest worthlessness. One telling example from Duncan’s books reads: "Ye can tell the criminal from the face in the crib". The philosophy Duncan darkly outlines is also predicated on the view that people don’t change. This is pithily expressed in Duncan’s line: "Yer sins go doon beside yer name in the Book o no rubbin oot."

There were more than 250 people in the hall listening to Dweck and many were struck by the particular relevance of her ideas to Scotland. Like me they also felt inspired by the simplicity of the idea and her argument that it is not that difficult to encourage people to change their beliefs from a fixed to a growth mindset. What we need to do is present young people with some up to date information on the plasticity of the brain and inspiring stories of people who learned or achieved as a result of effort and learning good strategies.

I’ve always argued that aspects of our Calvinist past, and traditional belief system have served Scotland well. It has given us our emphasis on education and the strong desire to make the world a better place. But Calvinism has also encouraged a stultifying and judgemental attitude to people which is not helpful.

One of the reasons why Dweck’s work is so exciting is that she offers us some powerful tools to start erasing some of these outmoded Calvinist beliefs.

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