What is a growth mindset? The concept originated with world-renowned Stanford University Psychologist Carol Dweck, who defined a “mindset” as a perception, or “self-theory” that people hold about themselves. For example, believing you’re intelligent or unintelligent is a mindset perception. It is said a person can be either aware, or unaware of their mindsets but, regardless, mindsets have a significant impact on their learning achievement, skill acquisition, personal relationships, and professional success. Dweck found that there are two types of mindsets: fixed, and growth. This discovery shed new light on how we view ourselves, and our abilities.
Fixed vs Growth Mindset
The struggle between fixed and growth mindsets can be a daily challenge. A fixed mindset is the belief that basic qualities, like intelligence, are fixed traits, and that talent alone creates success, without effort. People with this mindset often believe that an individual is either intelligent or unintelligent, and there is no way to change it. Research shows that people with a fixed mindset tend to learn less than they could, or at a slower rate, and may shy away from challenges, due to a fear that poor performance may confirm what they already believe about themselves. Conversely, a growth mindset is the belief that an individual’s most basic qualities can be developed through dedication and hard work, and that “brains” and “talent” are only starting points. It is the belief that you can learn more, or become smarter if you work hard and persevere. As a result, this type of mindset fosters resilience, and a love for learning. Students with this mindset learn more, more quickly, and view challenges as opportunities to improve their learning and skills, rather than opportunities for failure.
Nature or Nurture?
Growth mindset is a simple idea that can make all the difference, as the concept has been found to increase motivation and productivity in arenas as diverse as business, education, and sports. It’s also been shown to enhance personal relationships. While it is no secret that each individual is unique, and that people differ in many ways, some experts claim that there’s a strong physical basis for these differences. However, other experts point to the differences in people’s backgrounds, life experience, training, and ways of learning. Research is split on who is right, though scientists and educators increasingly looking toward a middle ground, between the two poles. It’s not nature or nurture; it’s a give-and-take between the two. Neuroscientist Gilbert Gottlieb noted that genes and the environment tend to cooperate as we develop; genes, in fact, require input from the environment to work effectively. Scientists have also learned that, in general, people have more capacity for lifelong learning and brain development than previously thought. Indeed, while people may start life with different temperaments and aptitudes, it’s clear that experience, training, and personal effort take them the rest of the way.
Growth Mindset in the Classroom
When Dweck recently revisited growth mindset, she found that student’s mindsets played a key role in motivation, and subsequent achievements; in other words, if you change a student’s mindset, you can boost achievement. Studies demonstrated that students who believed their intelligence could be developed outperformed those who believed their intelligence was fixed. When students learned through structured programs that they could “grow their brains”, and increase their intellectual abilities, they did better overall.
The most common misconception about Dweck’s theory is that a growth mindset is synonymous with effort. Instead, students need to try new strategies, and seek input from others when they’re stuck. All too often, teachers give praise to students who put forth effort, but aren’t learning, in order to reward the student in the moment. Unlike this approach, the growth mindset helps students feel good in both the short and long term, by helping them to thrive when faced with challenges and setbacks, on their path to learning. When a student is stuck, teachers can appreciate their work, but add, “let’s talk about what you’ve tried, and what you can try next”. Growth mindset is about being honest about a student’s current achievement and then, together, helping him or her achieve academic success.
“Mindset Works” founder, Lisa Blackwell, conducted a study a group of 7th graders in an inner-city NYC school. Blackwell and her colleagues divided their students into two groups: a control group were taught about the various stages of memory, and the other half received training in the growth mindset. The growth mindset group showed an increase in effort and motivation of up to three times that of the control group. After the training, the control group showed continuously declining grades, while the growth-mindset group demonstrated a consistent increase in performance.
Growth Mindset and the Educator
Teachers who ask themselves, “what can I do to promote a growth mindset in students?” may be interested to know that the mindset of a teacher has been found to impact the mindset of their students. Research also supports the idea that educator mindsets may influence the way they respond to students, which in turn has an impact on the students’ outcomes. In a 2012 study, Rattan, et al. found that teachers with a mindset that was “fixed” regarding their individual math abilities were more likely to judge students as having low potential than their growth-minded counterparts. Additionally, educators with a fixed mindset were more likely to comfort students about their perceived low math abilities and apply kind strategies. They used “comfort-oriented” feedback, in which students were told that their inability to succeed at math was “okay”, and attempted to make math easier by lowering expectations. A separate study, the same paper, reported that comfort-oriented feedback was linked to lower motivation in students, as well as lower expectations for their own performance, when compared with “strategy-oriented” feedback.
4 Ways Teachers Can Encourage a Growth Mindset in Students
- Think about setting achievable micro-goals to encourage students’ consistent, incremental progress. Small wins repeated over time can lead to a growth mindset (and increased confidence!).
- When students succeed, praise their efforts and strategies instead of their intelligence.
- Help students focus on and value the process of learning. Without this emphasis on learning, students will often base self-perceptions of intelligence and worth to grades received, promoting a fixed mindset. While grades are important, the value of learning should be prioritized.
- Design classroom activities that involve cooperative–rather than competitive or individualistic–work. Research suggests that students are more motivated and successful when working in groups. Students feel a sense of responsibility to the group to try their best, and thus will experience the positive feedback loop of effort and success, encouraging the development of a growth mindset.