ACS (International) Graduation Ceremony 2016

Speech by Pericles Lewis, President, Yale-NUS College
Anglo-Chinese School (International) Graduation Ceremony 2016
22 November 2016 at Oldham Chapel (ACSI)

Mr Rob Burrough, Principal, ACS International;
colleagues, graduates, parents, friends:

I would like to begin by congratulating the class of 2016 on their graduation. This is a magnificent accomplishment, and you all deserve to feel proud of having worked hard to complete such a rigorous programme of study. I am very honoured to be addressing you today. As you may know, I am the founding president of Yale-NUS College, which is now in its fourth year, and we are looking forward to our first graduation in May 2017. Our College has much in common with ACS International. Both schools are relatively new; we are about the same size; our students come approximately half from Singapore and half from other countries around the world; and we practise a broad-based educational method. You have all completed the international baccalaureate, which is one of the most rigorous and also one of the broadest-minded forms of curriculum available to high school and junior college students, while we at Yale-NUS have designed a wide-ranging curriculum in the liberal arts and sciences. I hope that some of you are considering applying to Yale-NUS College or to other colleges and universities that offer liberal education models, and in fact two recent graduates of ACS (International) are current students at Yale-NUS.

I suspect that I was invited to speak to you because of my experience in founding a college of liberal arts and sciences, but rather than talk much about that experience (which has been very exciting), I would like to speak with you about a broader subject that is relevant to both ACS International and Yale-NUS College, namely the idea of a “growth mindset.” I believe that both the International Baccalaureate and liberal arts education are successful in part because they help to nurture what psychologists call a “growth mindset” in students. Students learn how to learn, and they learn that they can improve at learning, and this openness to learning serves them well later in life.

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, beginning in the 1980’s, developed the theory of “fixed” and “growth” mindsets. (I am happy to say that Professor Dweck studied at a liberal arts college, Barnard College in New York, and then got her PhD in Psychology from Yale University). Those with “fixed” mindsets have the implicit belief that one’s level of ability is set and relatively unchangeable—in other words, they believe that your intelligence is a basic fact about you that does not change much over time or with effort. Those with “growth” mindsets have the opposite belief, that intelligence can be improved through hard work. According to Dweck’s research, everyone falls somewhere along a continuum between fixed and growth mindsets. But what is striking about her research, and this has subsequently been verified in other experiments, is that what you believe about intelligence affects how good a learner you are. In other words, if you believe that you have just so much intelligence (even if you think you have a lot of it), you are less likely to learn well. If on the other hand, you believe that intelligence can be developed (even if you are modest about your own abilities), you will be capable of more learning.

Professor Dweck has commented that “Society is obsessed with the idea of talent and genius and people who are ‘naturals’ with innate ability” (NYT 2008). She told the New York Times: “People who believe in the power of talent tend not to fulfill their potential because they’re so concerned with looking smart and not making mistakes. But people who believe that talent can be developed are the ones who really push, stretch, confront their own mistakes and learn from them.” It seems that the key to success is understanding that intelligence improves with effort and maintaining that belief when confronted with challenges or even failure.

Professor Dweck’s research is highly relevant for educational practice, child-rearing, and also broader public policy. Specifically, she recommends praising children for their efforts and hard work rather than attributing their success to innate talent. This is because praising effort reinforces the idea that one’s intelligence can grow; it is not fixed. You may ask yourself whether a fixed mindset is itself a fixed attribute—that is to say, if you don’t implicitly believe in your ability to learn and grow, will you be able to change those implicit beliefs?

Fortunately, Professor Dweck and researchers following up on her discoveries have found relatively simple interventions that allow students to develop a growth mindset and become better learners. For example, Professor Dweck showed that students praised for their effort on an IQ test subsequently did better on such tests than those who were praised for their innate intelligence. Professor Aneeta Rattan of the London Business School and a team of researchers have demonstrated that, in a large number of experiments, students who were given “growth mindset” training, and encouraged to see their brains as growing, performed better than similar students who did not get this relatively simple training.  They have recommended introducing all students to the growth mindset.

People also hold fixed and growth mindsets about other personal attributes that can affect their persistence and achievement. This is particularly relevant for schools like ACS (International) and Yale-NUS that emphasise a broad curriculum, leadership opportunities, and co-curricular activities. For example, my colleague at Yale-NUS College, Assistant Professor Paul O’Keefe, has examined whether people believe their personal interests and passions are inherent (a “fixed mindset”) or developed (a “growth mindset”). He has shown that a growth mindset leads to higher levels of interest in a greater variety of academic topics. Furthermore, a growth mindset leads people to maintain interest in a topic even when engaging in that interest becomes difficult. He is currently working on an experiment at Yale-NUS that tests how these mindsets affect interest in students engaging in a diverse curriculum.

From what I know about your course of study and the philosophy of ACS (International), I suspect that most of you have already developed a growth mindset. I have been deeply impressed with your school’s aim of developing “future leaders with an international vision, moral character, intellectual ability and deep compassion for humanity.” In order to become such leaders, you must build on what you have learned here at ACS International. I congratulate those who have scored well on their exams, but I want you all to know that your exam scores are not the ultimate measure of your ability.

Whatever you have learned so far is just the basis for so much more learning ahead of you not only in university but in life. Today as you prepare to leave this “home” that you have resided in for up to six years of your student life, I believe your time here has helped to promote a genuine and intrinsic love of learning, a mindset of critical thinking, and a heart for service. I hope that you continue to go out into the world with a growth mindset, recognising that your learning can continue for the rest of your lives and that when it comes to understanding the world and making the most of your talents, your journey has just begun.