What is a growth mindset?
A mindset is a belief about yourself and your abilities. These beliefs include how your see: your intelligence, your talents, your personality.
From over 30 years of research in schools, Carol Ann Dweck published “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” coining the terms: mindset, growth mindset and fixed mindset to describe the underlying beliefs people have about learning and intelligence.
Believing that you are either “intelligent” or “unintelligent” is a simple example of a mindset. Children may also have a mindset related their personal or education lives—“I’m good at maths” or “I’m bad at spelling,” for example. Both children and adults can be aware or unaware of their mindsets, according to Dweck, but they can have a profound effect on learning achievement, skill acquisition, personal relationships, educational success, and many other dimensions of life.
According to Dweck, “In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort.” Dweck’s research suggests that students who have adopted a fixed mindset—the belief that they are either “smart” or “dumb” and there is no way to change this, for example—may learn less than they could or learn at a slower rate, while also shying away from challenges (since poor performance might either confirm they can’t learn, if they believe they are “dumb,” or indicate that they are less intelligent than they think, if they believe they are “smart”). Dweck’s findings also suggest that when students with fixed mindsets fail at something, as they inevitably will, they tend to tell themselves they can’t or won’t be able to do it (“I just can’t learn Algebra”), or they make excuses to rationalize the failure (“I would have passed the test if I had had more time to study”).
Alternatively, “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment,” writes Dweck. Students who embrace growth mindsets—the belief that they can learn more or become smarter if they work hard and persevere—may learn more, learn it more quickly, and view challenges and failures as opportunities to improve their learning and skills.
Why is mindset important in school?
Recent advances in neuroscience have shown us that the brain is far more malleable than we ever knew. Research on brain plasticity has shown how connectivity between neurons can change with experience. With practice, neural networks grow new connections, strengthen existing ones, and build insulation that speeds transmission of impulses. These neuroscientific discoveries have shown us that we can increase our neural growth by the actions we take, such as using good strategies, asking questions, practicing, and following good nutrition and sleep habits.
At the same time that these neuroscientific discoveries were gaining traction, researchers began to understand the link between mindsets and achievement. If you believe your brain can grow, you behave differently. This led the researchers to ask, “Can we change mindsets? And if so, how?” The research done to answer this question proves we can indeed change a person’s mindset from fixed to growth, and when we do, it leads to increased motivation and achievement. For example, in the US, 7th graders who were taught that intelligence is malleable and shown how the brain grows with effort showed a clear increase in math grades.
In addition to teaching students about malleable intelligence, researchers started noticing that teacher practice has a big impact on student mindset, and the feedback that teachers give their students can either encourage a child to choose a challenge and increase achievement or look for an easy way out. For example, studies on different kinds of praise have shown that telling children they are smart encourages a fixed mindset, whereas praising hard work and effort cultivates a growth mindset. When students have a growth mindset, they take on challenges and learn from them, therefore increasing their abilities and achievement.
The Impact of Praise and Feedback
The feedback teachers give students can influence their mindsets in surprising ways. For example, while praising for intelligence, such as “You’re so smart!” is considered by some to be motivating, research demonstrates that it can actually have a negative impact on student motivation and achievement. In a study with 5th graders, Dweck and Mueller divided the children into two groups and asked them to work on a puzzle task. One group, after succeeding initially, was praised for their intelligence and ability. The other group, also after succeeding, was praised for their effort, rather than innate intelligence. When the initially easy task became harder, the groups reacted in very different ways. Students praised for intelligence preferred to continue working on the easier tasks, while students praised for effort chose to progress to more challenging tasks. The effort-praised group exhibited more challenge-seeking behavior and cited learning goals as most motivating. The intelligence-praised group avoided the challenge in favor of ensured success, and cited performance – i.e., looking smart – as a primary goal. Overall, praise for intelligence actually led to less persistence, less enjoyment, and worse performance than praise for effort. When students were praised for having high ability, they came to attribute their success to a fixed (and unchangeable) quality of themselves, while students praised for effort believed that their performance was subject to improvement. Read the full study here.
The Impact of Teacher Mindsets
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 educators with a fixed mindset about math ability 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 they told their students that their inability to succeed at math is okay, and also attempted to make math easier by lowering expectations. In a separate study reported in the same paper, this 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. Read the full study here.
Any intervention should be designed to encourage growth mindset and not work to fixed ideas about pass/fail. Although this may seem at odds with the current English curriculum and many other curriculums around the world, it doesn’t have to be. If students know things then they will pass an exam. If students are pressurized, exam and results-focussed, research shows that they may not achieve their full potential and may not achieve their goals.
Using a product such as SkillsMastery, can help to develop a growth mindset in students. It has been developed by a teacher to ensure that students don’t see it as a pass/fail environment, but because all students start at the same point there are no fixed ideas about who is better or not. The progress through the course depends on students effort. If they put lots of effort in at home and at school, then they will progress more quickly through the course than those who do not. When answers are given, all comments are in terms of effort not attainment, therefore encouraging students to try again until they get the answer correct and don’t give up at the first try.
Ask for a free trial for your students to see how it can work in your school or academy.