In education, there has been a great deal of talk about “mindset” and “mindfulness.” However, there seems to be some confusion about these two concepts and practices. While they both start with the word “mind,” they are actually quite distinct. Yet, at the same time, they can actually complement each other quite effectively.
If you are an educator who is planning to introduce these approaches to students or colleagues in a meaningful way, it’s important to have a clear understanding of how these concepts differ and how they overlap and interplay with one another. In fact, being familiar with how these concepts can be practiced becomes critical if you are an educator, coach, parent, or anyone whose role it is to support other people. The way you approach others--your mindset—affects the people you are working with. Imagine the difference between a teacher who believes that each child’s intelligence is fixed, and one who believes that it isn’t. While on the other hand, your relationship to your own awareness—mindfulness—can imbue your interactions with a quality of presence, a felt sense of life that goes beyond conceptualizing our everyday experience. Imagine the difference between a teacher who is attached to his or her own ideas and one who is available, open, and curious about how his or her students’ thinking unfolds.
This becomes doubly important when considering that our way of thinking (mindset) or relationship to our own thinking (mindfulness) can not only shape the quality of our experience while we are teaching or learning, but it is also essential to our health, well-being, and relationships with others. Our thinking can be a catalyst for fear or anxiety, or for wholeness and healing.
Generally speaking, mindset refers to the set of beliefs we have about ourselves and our potential. The concept of “mindset” was first articulated by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck in her 2007 book entitled Mindset; The New Psychology of Success. After decades of research on achievement and success, she determined that a person’s success in life is largely based on whether they have a “fixed,” or “growth” mindset. If we have a fixed mindset we believe our potential is limited, or fixed. For example, with a fixed mindset we have the belief we are intelligent or we are not—we are capable of doing something or we are not. This view gives us very little motivation to grow or move forward. However, if we have the tools to shift towards a “growth” mindset we don’t limit ourselves – we believe that our potential, skills, choices and intelligence are dynamic, changeable, and can be cultivated. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great achievement.
In contrast, mindfulness is the practice of noticing the degree in which we are identified with our ideas and beliefs—where we mistakenly take our thoughts to be us. The father of the modern mindfulness movement, Jon Kabat-Zinn, defines mindfulness as: “paying attention in a particular way; On purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
Mindfulness is the ability to become aware of how identified or attached we are with our thoughts and perspectives. In other words, mindfulness creates space to become the observer of our thoughts and beliefs about the world, ourselves, and others—we begin to see our imaginary thoughts as unreal productions of the mind, in comparison to believing that our thoughts are a true reflection of reality. When we shift our attention away from default mode-- a constant preoccupation and identification with thoughts--mindfulness can reduce mental stress and increase our focus and performance.
Mindset and mindfulness are both really valuable frameworks that can actually complement each other as I mentioned earlier. Although, these categories are not mutually exclusive, here are some capacities they encompass:
Habitual ways of thinking
Self-talk or talk to others
Challenge vs. opportunity
Free attention to present moment
Cultivate curiosity, openness
Response vs. reaction
To use an analogy, I like to think of mindset as the books and mindfulness as the bookshelf. So, whether you are a classroom teacher, manager, coach, or parent, the benefit of having a clear grasp of these two different tools can assist in fine tuning how you approach applying them into the communities in which you work and live. When we have a more distinct picture of how our mental mechanisms shape our experience, it increases our agency and degree of choice about how to relate to our experiences and the people around us.
Check my blog for the next series on specific ways you can apply mindset and mindfulness in your learning and teaching communities.