A Growth Mindset is Key to a Culture of Learning: A Case Study
by Wendy Grinberg
Imagine you are in the leadership at a large, successful suburban congregation. Your religious school has a good reputation and the students who come give positive feedback. Recently, a consistent group of sixth graders have stopped attending altogether on Sundays. What is your reaction?
When this scenario played out at Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, the rabbi met individually with each family to asses where the congregation was failing to meet the needs of those families. Then they created a pilot program to better suit them. In an email their educator sent out following the meetings, she wrote, “Thanks to your honesty, we believe that Barnert is going to move into a new era that will offer all families a more accessible, relevant and meaningful Jewish experience.” This episode is a window into the culture of ongoing learning at Barnert Temple. I believe this culture is directly linked to the prevailing mindset in this community, what Stanford University psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset.”
In her writing, a growth mindset is contrasted to a “fixed mindset.” In a fixed mindset, people believe their strengths and weaknesses are a given. In a growth mindset, people believe that they can develop their abilities through hard work. A person with a growth mindset is open to feedback, seeks out challenges and learns from mistakes. A person with a fixed mindset is constantly concerned with proving him/herself and therefore shies away from any challenge in which s/he may fail. People with a fixed mindset also surround themselves with others who make them look good, while those with a growth mindset want to be around people who push them to think differently and improve.
For an example from Jewish tradition, we can look to Hillel and Shammai. Take the famous story of the potential convert who challenges each rabbi to teach him the Torah while he stands on one foot. (Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 31a) Shammai chases the convert away. We guess his thought process was something like this: This person is ignorant. He has no respect for the depth and breadth of Judaism. He would only dilute and corrupt Judaism if he were converted. He is making a fool of me and all that I stand for. This kind of thinking comes out of a fixed mindset. When faced with the same challenge, Hillel responded, “What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary; go and learn it.” What mindset does this reaction reveal? The whole Torah on one foot? Now that’s an interesting challenge! I’ll give it a shot! This man is showing an interest in Judaism. Once he is attracted to Judaism and its philosophy, he will be able to learn more and become a true student of Torah and member of the Jewish community. This is the thinking of someone with a growth mindset, particularly revealed in Hillel’s concluding statement, “Go and learn it.” Hillel believes that learning is possible, even for this person, and that it will be transformative.
As Dr. Dweck explains, organizations can operate under either a growth or fixed mindset as well. In order to learn more about Barnert Temple’s culture and approach to learning, I interviewed eight people in the leadership, including both Rabbi Elyse Frishman and Rabbi Rachel Steiner and the Director of Lifelong Learning Sara Losch. The five volunteer leaders I interviewed (three women and two men) all are part of a self-study in the area of education. This group has been convened in order to look at trends in Jewish education as well as patterns and challenges of Barnert’s education offerings and then make recommendations for improvement. Through my interviews, I found that the growth mindset pervades their work and that this approach has a ripple effect through the congregation.
By highlighting the characteristics at this growth mindset congregation, I hope to show how other organizations can adopt this approach, becoming learning communities with an eye towards evolving and improving.
- Group process, not groupthink. Carol Dweck warns that when a CEO has a fixed mindset, “Everything starts revolving around the boss.” (123) When all that matters is boosting the boss’ ego, critical thinking goes by the wayside. In contrast, growth mindset leaders surround themselves with people who give meaningful feedback and represent different perspectives. The education self-study is just one in a series of think tanks and learning efforts devoted to improvement, including a worship think tank, identity think tank, groups to create vision and mission statements, and a recently created strategic planning committee. In the words of the lifelong learning chair, “We tend to like these kinds of participatory, soul-searching processes.” One of the most veteran members of the congregation involved in the self-study told me, “I think one of Barnert’s strengths has always been its willingness to approach self-examination.”
- Diverse voices. Central to the group process is representing a wide range of opinion and experience. The people on the task force came from a wide cross-section of the membership. In addition to this large group, focus groups and individual interviews were conducted. A task force member told me, “One of the untapped resources in our congregation is the background, knowledge and skills of our congregants in terms of education…. We once counted 300 people involved in committees at the synagogue.” What allows the senior leadership to open up major synagogue policies and philosophies to such a process? Rabbi Frishman told me, “As I think the work we are doing is really on the cusp, there are no answers to the questions we are answering, so if you invite the right people, they are going to have ideas that I haven’t thought of.” The growth mindset believes in the potential of honest searching and learning to yield meaningful answers. As growth mindset leaders do, Rabbi Frishman has built a team of people who are different than she is: “I love that. The team has to be different. We often make each other uncomfortable, but I’m really OK with that, because we really bring different things to the table.”
- The senior leadership sets the tone. As you can see, a big part of an organization having a growth mindset is a leader with a growth mindset. “People in a growth mindset don’t just seek challenge, they thrive on it. The bigger the challenge, the more they stretch.” (20) Rabbi Frishman in many ways embodies a growth mindset. “Do you always take the same road home?” she asked me. “I don’t. I like to always try a new way. I could just get in my car and ride through a new area.” Elyse came into a congregation that did not look like the current one. Although she credits the search committee with taking a forward-looking risk by hiring her, she had to work tirelessly to change the culture against significant resistance from veteran members.
- Mistakes are learning opportunities. Therefore, the leadership is open to critique. A mother of two described to me two challenges and how the leadership responded. “Whatever the issue is, they welcome it, they attack it, and they bring it to the forefront. There’s nothing hush-hush. For example, when my kids were in preschool, a lot of things happened by word of mouth, and working moms weren’t getting the word. When I didn’t hear about my son’s performance, I called the school office pretty upset. What did Sara do? She held off the play until I could get there. Then she met me at the door with a coffee. Another time one of my sons didn’t want to go to Hebrew school because he didn’t believe in God. So, I called. The staff responded by developing a whole unit on questioning, explaining that it’s part of Judaism. They taught it to the whole grade.” A culture marked by a growth mindset means not only that people feel comfortable coming forward with critiques and concerns, but also that leaders feel supported in taking risks which ultimately move the organization forward. As Sara Losch told me, “I don’t have to hit a home run every time at the plate.”
- Change is the only constant. People with a growth mindset thrive on challenge. They seek out opportunities for growth. More than once, people told me Barnert Temple was not a place that “liked to cruise.” As a result, members of Barnert Temple have learned to be comfortable with change as a mark of learning and evolution. One man I interviewed described his reactions to recent staff changes, explaining “Everything remained the same at the temple where I grew up. We felt we were looking for a solid, no change experience and were a little bit shocked by a change. It took a year to get used to it. I don’t know what else could possibly change, but we’ve seen over the past three years a significant amount of change, and it’s good change, and it feels like we’re growing the temple and the temple management and clergy are not just sitting on their laurels. They’re constantly trying to adapt and move the congregation forward.” Rabbi Frishman has a unique outlook when it comes to evaluating her success: “People look at our congregation and say: It’s not broken, and we say: You don’t see what’s going to happen in ten years. We know for sure based on everything we’re reading, this is not where we’ll be in a few years. If you don’t work on it, it’s going to disintegrate. I’ll know I’ve been successful if the children here join synagogues, or if synagogues don’t exist, they are connected to the Jewish community some way.” This is a stark example of the remarkable attitude a growth mindset provides. Rabbi Frishman’s openness to growth and the possibilities of change allow her to consider a world with no synagogues and still envision a successful outcome as a synagogue rabbi in that world.
- Learning is ongoing and for everyone. Here is where the growth mindset meets the learning organization. Carol Dweck writes, “Seymour Sarason was a professor of mine when I was in graduate school. He was a wonderful educator, and he always told us to question assumptions. ‘There’s an assumption,’ he said, ‘that schools are for students’ learning. Well, why aren’t they just as much for teachers’ learning?’” (201) Barnert Temple is a place where the staff, adults and children all engage in learning. Sara described to me a calendar full of learning and professional development opportunities for herself. In fact, she said that when she wasn’t initially going to conferences due to personal health reasons, “there was disappointment from Elyse and my chair.” A man I interviewed said he remembers the congregation where he grew up as a place with a lot of activities for kids, but that the plethora of adult learning opportunities at Barnert Temple sends a message about the ability of adults to grow as Jews. Rabbi Frishman models this; “I don’t see how we can ask people to grow if we don’t grow. People have to know that I’m always growing. I say it to members all the time. I am a better human being because of my partnership with them. I expect the same from them.”
The good news about a growth mindset is that anyone can learn it. You can change your mindset, and you can change your school or organization to be a place that encourages a growth mindset. To return to our ancient rabbis, while Shammai may have been more accurate to insist that the Chanukah lights diminish, Hillel embraced the challenge and potential of a new reality. Each Chanukah we broadcast the message of the growth mindset: embrace change, learn from challenges, and light increases.
 Dweck, Carol S. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House, 2006. (All references in the article are to this book.)
Wendy Grinberg is the founder and director of the Jewish Education Lab and clinical faculty at HUC- JIR’s New York School of Education. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more about Barnert Temple, visit barnerttemple.org.