Are you great at dealing with technical jargon in simultaneous? Are you bad with numbers? Are your notes sloppy? Do you have a bad memory?

These are the stories we tell ourselves about our interpreting skills and professional abilities, and some of these stories can be very damaging.

I often liken learning to be an interpreter to learning to drive a car. You need to master a distinct set of skills, apply them all at the same time (watching out for hazards, steering, using the pedals, signalling, reading the road conditions), and give your passengers a smooth ride. When you first learn to drive, you need to think hard about these things (e.g. ‘I’m approaching a sharp left turn; I’d better change down into second gear.’). Eventually, many of the processes become automatic, except in difficult driving conditions (heavy traffic, bad weather), and you don’t have to think so hard about what you’re doing. This seems to me to be a pretty good analogy for simultaneous interpreting, in particular.

Let me tell you a little story about driving.  For years, I didn’t drive. When asked about it, I explained that I ‘didn’t drive’ or that I was bad at it. I was definitely useless at parallel parking.

I learned to drive at 17. I took lots of driving lessons and passed my test first time, then didn’t drive for several years. My then boyfriend got bored of doing all the driving when we went on long trips, and pushed me to drive his car.

Picture this: my boyfriend’s white Citroen, a wooden post in a garage, a sickening crunch, and a bill for £982 (probably around £50,000 in today’s money. Well, that’s a slight exaggeration, but that’s what it felt like as a student).

The most interesting part of this story is not the severe dent in the bodywork that resulted, but what happened afterwards. I developed a driving phobia. It manifested in a very physical way. I felt anxious as a passenger in someone else’s car. My spatial awareness was shot to pieces: when cars came at us in the other direction, I thought they were going to run into us, even though they were in the other lane. My warped perception often led me to believe we were going to hit the kerb, even though there were inches of space between it and the tyres.

I stopped driving completely for 12 years.

The messages we absorb from our nearest and dearest in our first few years of life shape our whole personality and ability to deal with life’s challenges. Some of the biggest messages I subconsciously absorbed from my parents** were ‘it’s only worth doing something if you do it well’ (= you should aspire to perfection), ‘mistakes are disastrous and shameful’ and ‘what other people think of you really matters’. As a result, I grew up with very strong perfectionist tendencies. I felt I should be able to do things perfectly, straight away.

When I crashed my boyfriend’s car, my psychological makeup just couldn’t accept a) that I had done something badly, b) that I had made a terrible mistake, and c) that it was my boyfriend’s car and everyone knew about my embarrassing failure. I find it a fascinating proof of the power of the mind that the result was a phobia lasting 12 years. I was literally incapable of driving, for no other reason than my own limiting self-beliefs.

This is an excellent example of what’s known as a fixed mindset. A fixed mindset sees traits such as intelligence, creativity, character, interpreting skills, or in my case, driving ability, as being either fixed at birth or immutable, carved in stone. My unfortunate encounter with the garage post proved to me that I was a bad driver, so I defined myself as a bad driver.

I had no problem defining myself as good at some things (baking, dancing, writing thank you letters) and terrible at others (bicycle maintenance, driving, small talk). After all, how many times have you heard fellow linguists say ‘I’m useless at maths!’?

None of this struck me as particularly damaging, until I began to hear the same words in the mouth of my six year old daughter. ‘I’m useless,’ she would say. ‘I’m so stupid! I can’t do this!’ It struck me as worrying, and wrong, that such a young child should be so hard on herself when she couldn’t master a new or complex skill straight away, that she equated being a beginner with stupidity or failure, and that she had so little resilience that she didn’t believe she could continue to develop and improve, with effort and help.

That’s when I began to learn about growth mindsets.

Much research has been done on fixed mindsets vs. growth mindsets in the past twenty years (mostly on children). A growth mindset is the belief that intelligence (and other traits or skills) can be developed; that you can train your brain with hard work, effective strategies, and help from others when needed.

The origins of work on growth mindset

The early work on growth mindsets was led in 1998 by Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University. Six studies looked at the effects of praise on students’ behaviour and performance following a test. Those students who were praised on their natural ability (e.g. ‘you did well, you’re very smart’), later chose activities that would make them look clever. They demonstrated less persistence than the other group, and their performance in subsequent tests was poorer. Students who were praised for being hard working, on the other hand, chose to learn new things and performed better subsequently.

Since then, several large scale studies (a 2013 meta-analysis of 113 studies, data from more than 160,000 children in Chile, data from 100,000 middle school pupils from California) have shown that a growth mindset predicts academic achievement, that growth mindset interventions can improve maths test scores, and that mindsets are a significant factor in working successfully towards a goal.

The benefits of having a growth mindset

In addition to being associated with higher academic achievement and working towards goals successfully, having a growth mindset can also help students

  • cope better with transitions,
  • develop grit and resilience,
  • develop pro-social behaviours (defined as behaviours that benefit other people or society as a whole).

A growth mindset may also offer mental health benefits, such as a reduced risk of depression and anxiety.

Now, in case you’re wondering how this relates to you, if you’re reading this, the chances are you are a) an interpreting student, b) an interpreting trainer, or c) a person. Or possibly two out of three of these. And people, whether students or trainers (or professional interpreters) can benefit hugely from shifting their mindset to move away from a fixed view of ability to a growth mindset.

How? Change the way you think and talk to yourself (or your children, or your students) about your achievements or failures.

As a trainer, I see the effects of fixed mindsets every day in my work with interpreting students. More and more students suffer anxiety and stress during the academic year, and their exam performances are severely affected by nerves. Yet these students’ experience of their interpreting course, and the way they respond to challenges, setbacks and adversity (including exams), can be transformed with a mindset shift.

Let me make this more visual for you, and illustrate what happens in the classroom, or after an exam, when a student encounters adversity (e.g. ‘negative’ feedback on their interpreting, or a poor exam grade).

 

In a nutshell, to people with a fixed mindset, the classroom can be a threatening and stressful environment. This is because they believe their abilities and intelligence are immutable; thus, every class/performance/exam forces them to prove their ability and avoid looking stupid. Every lesson makes them question whether they will be accepted or rejected, whether they will come out the winner or loser, whether they will look intelligent or ignorant (many of the professional interpreters out there will recognise that they feel like this about their work assignments as well).

As a result, people with a fixed mindset tend to value good grades (= proof that they are intelligent) over learning. They have a tendency to avoid challenges (which might make them look stupid, i.e. call into question their perceived intelligence), and to give up when they struggle. Their inner dialogue goes like this: ‘If I have to try hard at learning to note-take/doing simultaneous/getting all the links right in the speech, I must not be very clever/talented.’ They view the struggle negatively, and they think they have discovered they are bad at something.

They have little resilience.

By contrast, students with a growth mindset perceive the classroom as an exciting place to grow and embrace challenges. The work that they do leads to mastery of their chosen subject. They tend to value learning (the process, not the results), and they view effort and struggle positively.

They are resilient.

When it’s explained in these terms, I think it’s difficult to object to the theory behind growth mindsets. What’s not to like in an approach that helps students enjoy learning and achieve more, that makes company employees feel more empowered and committed, and that helps old dogs learn new tricks (since, despite the age-related decline in our little grey cells, our brains are still malleable)?

Old dog, new tricks. See how literal my brain is? Literal, but still plastic.

As a result, the growth mindset approach has been adopted wholeheartedly by the British educational establishment. It’s not all that easy to teach in schools, though; and it is prone to distortions and misinterpretations, which can be quite dangerous in themselves. I’ll talk about those in a moment.

How to change your teaching with growth mindset principles

The first thing I want to convey to you is this: I firmly believe that if you have a growth mindset (most of the time), and you can encourage your students to do the same, the classroom will be more productive, less threatening, more positive, and more fun. In this environment, it’s easier to learn together.

First of all, trainers need to use their influence in a purposeful and explicit way, by modelling a growth mindset. Say what? Well, walk the walk.

When you’re in a meeting or a training session, speak up when you don’t understand. When someone makes a Powerpoint presentation, try saying ‘can you tell me more about that?’ instead of pretending you know it all already. Be curious. Don’t be the person with eyes facing the floor, who never asks questions. In the classroom, show that you’re not perfect or all-knowing, and that you are also still learning and growing. Show that you are someone to learn with, that your students can learn together with you. 

Does this sound risky? It definitely makes you vulnerable in a way I, at least, was told to avoid at all costs when I was training as an interpreter. ‘If you don’t know something, cover it up!’ was the mantra. I’m not telling you how to behave in front of your clients, though; I’m making a suggestion about how you relate to your students, if you’re a trainer. Admit your imperfections, so they can let go of the need to be perfect. Show, or say, that you’re still learning, so they can understand the importance of lifelong learning and personal growth (no need to go over the top and let out all your insecurities and self-criticism, though!). Some years ago I watched a fellow trainer, who happened to be an outstanding interpreter and a colleague for whom I had huge respect, demonstrate a consecutive in class. He sailed through it, with the exception of a short section, which he fluffed. Afterwards, he laughed about it, explained what had gone wrong in his technique, and suggested better ways of dealing with it. The students loved it! Instead of consecutive seeming to be an unattainable goal where only perfection was acceptable, his performance made it seem achievable; and more than that, the fact that a professional, highly regarded interpreter had made a (small) mistake also made the profession look more achievable to the students.

Alongside practising your own growth mindset, here are some tips for fostering the same in your students:

  • teach students about the evidence from neuroscience that the brain is malleable and that intelligence can continue to develop throughout your life.
  • Change the way you interact with your student. Focus on praising the process (their effort, strategy and results) rather than their ability.
  • Avoid comparing students. Give students the opportunity to reflect on their own performance, and to evaluate how hard they worked, what strategies they used, and how much progress they have made.
  • Understand the power of the word YET. If your students (or your children, or you) make absolute statements about their ability (‘I can’t listen and write at the same time’, ‘I’m bad with numbers’, ‘I can never remember the conclusion’), see what happens when you add the word….YET at the end of the sentence. That simple addition leaves room for growth, and shows that you are engaged in a process in which there is hope for improvement.
  • Remind your students that they are beginners, that they are learning new skills, and that it is normal to struggle.
  • Accept mistakes in your classroom. Mistakes, if you get the right feedback afterwards, help us learn. But it’s worth making the point that interpreters can’t afford to make the same mistake too many times.

Here are a few examples to illustrate the idea of praising the process rather than the ability:

Praising ability

‘Great! You’ve taken to note-taking really quickly. You’re a natural!’

‘You got a distinction in your first semester exams. You’re a really good interpreter!’

‘You picked up that idea straight away. Told you you were bright.’

‘You’re such a good student. Well done!’

Praising process

‘Great! You worked really hard on that essay.’

‘You’ve done a lot of practice on your symbols, and the result is a real improvement in your consecutive technique.’

‘It was good to see you rounding up the numbers when the speech got too hard. That was a new strategy for you, and it worked.’

‘Today was a challenging session. Your note-taking isn’t 100% reliable yet, but you can already get more detail in the speech than last week.’

In many ways, praising the process rather than the ability ties in with familiar principles of giving constructive feedback to interpreting students: don’t make it personal (‘you’re terrible at this!’), be specific, give examples, comment on the performance and not the person. In this sense, growth mindset theory tallies with and reinforces tried and tested principles of best practice in interpreter training.

Misconceptions about growth mindset

Funnily enough, the growth mindset theory is actually prone to polarised, all-or-nothing thinking, even though that is precisely what the theory frowns on (for instance, ‘let’s test school children on whether they have a growth mindset’, ‘let’s evaluate schools based on whether they manage to inculcate a growth mindset’, ‘if you think the theory doesn’t work, it’s probably because you have a false growth mindset’).

I’ll spare you the complex debate about how to apply growth mindset principles to education policy, and instead focus on three misconceptions I think are damaging.

‘Anyone can do anything.’

Growth mindset theory can come across as a defence of the idea that everyone has infinite potential. If you just try hard enough/are positive enough/embrace your mistakes and failures enough, anything is possible!

Hold on just a minute. Your mindset can get you a long way, but it can’t overcome any and every challenge you may face, or alter luck/opportunity/the way the world works. We’re not all going to be wildly successful multi-millionaires, or prima ballerinas, or the Prime Minister (guess which one I briefly toyed with as a child).*

When growth mindset theory is misinterpreted in this way and applied in the classroom, the risk is that it can lead to boundless optimism and ambition (and why not?), but also a whole lot of unrealistic expectations and a sense of entitlement.

We all have different talents, aptitudes, interests and temperaments; I don’t believe in the idea that we can all do anything we want, as long as we believe we can; but we can definitely all change, grow and improve.

‘Growth mindset is all about effort. You should never praise ability.’

First of all, having a growth mindset doesn’t just mean working hard. Unproductive effort shouldn’t be a goal in itself. It’s important to keep a weather eye on what you’re trying to achieve, and make sure you are trying new strategies if you’re in a rut, or getting help from others.

As a parent, I sometimes find my children’s school overly politically correct in avoiding praise for ability at all costs. Report cards are so non-judgemental and politically correct that I find it difficult to assess whether my children are doing OK. All their reports are couched in terms like ‘has made good progress’, and ‘is working hard towards mastering multiplication tables.’ Huh? What does this mean, really? If you’re a teacher or a parent, focus on praising effort, by all means, but don’t forget that sometimes we need reassurance or a reality check in the form of a reference to achievement. It’s OK to say ‘Wow! What a fantastic result in your exam!’ – you might want to add ‘You put in so much effort, and this is your reward – you can be proud of yourself!’

‘Just adopt a growth mindset and good things will follow.’

Nope. It’s not enough to talk the talk. You have to walk the walk as well. Trainers need to model a growth mindset in their interactions with students. Companies need to have policies that reward behaviours based on growth mindsets, such as sharing information, collaborating, innovating, seeking feedback, and admitting mistakes. If we want our children to become more resilient and adopt a growth mindset, we need to demonstrate the same attitude, and value perseverance and problem-solving, rather than just educational or sporting achievements.

How you can adopt a growth mindset in your own life

Seriously, you have enough energy to read more about this? I’m definitely over my word limit. On the other hand, I’m also over thinking I’m a bad driver. After several lessons and a whole lot of ‘facing my fears and doing it anyway’, I started driving again a few years ago. I’m not brilliant at it: I hate going to new places, I despise multi-storey car parks, and I refuse to drive on the Continent.

But when I catch myself thinking ‘I’m terrible at parking!’, I reframe it (especially if my children are around) as ‘Driving isn’t my top skill, but I’m still working on it. I’ve practised parking and reversing, and I’ve definitely improved. I’m not perfect at it, but my driving is good enough.’

If you’re interested in applying growth mindset principles to your own life, look out for next week’s FREE mindset challenge.

I’ll be sending you 5 day’s worth of simple activities to get you thinking differently about learning.

*no, not Prime Minister. Definitely a poisoned chalice.

** Surely you know the saying ‘they f*ck you up, your mum and dad’? If not, here’s the poem by Philip Larkin. Those easily offended by four letter words should abstain from reading any further.

This Be The Verse

BY PHILIP LARKIN
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
    They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
    By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
    And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
    And don’t have any kids yourself.
Philip Larkin, “This Be the Verse” from Collected Poems. Copyright
© Estate of Philip Larkin. 
Source: Collected Poems (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2001)

Interpreting Coach logoSophie Llewellyn Smith, writing as The Interpreting Coach, is a coach, interpreter trainer, conference interpreter, designer of online teaching materials, and creator of Speechpool. Follow the blog to pick up tips on how to improve your interpreting skills, and check out the website for digital material to complement your face-to-face learning and empower you to take control of your learning. If you’re interested in personal coaching, why not book a free discovery call?

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2 thoughts on “The mindset shift that improves exam grades & self-esteem and redefines success

  1. Thank you, Sophie, This is just wonderful: Crystal clear, experience-driven and powerful. It’s like a ‘one truth fits all’ at some point in our lives. I’ll do my best to share all this and … of course, walk the talk!

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