Updated: Feb 18
What it is. Why we need it. How we get it.
What is growth mindset?
Simply put, mindset is the way a person explains success and failure to themselves.
Dr. Carol Dweck, a clinical psychologist and one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of motivation and mindset, found that how people explain their own intelligence has a significant influence on their motivation, effort and approach to challenges.
A growth mindset is the belief that our basic abilities and attributes can be developed through effort and experience. It is the idea that a person’s potential is unknowable and changeable.
“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.” (Dweck, 2015)
It is difficult to discuss growth mindset without also talking about fixed mindset.
“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, 2015)
Most people have a mix of both fixed and growth mindsets, meaning that they may have a fixed mindset about some things and a growth mindset about others. For example, in an area of perceived lack of skill, a student may have a fixed mindset and at the same time have a belief that he/she can improve in areas of strength. Whilst most people will experience both mindsets at various times, many will also have one mindset which is predominate. The good news for those who are more inclined towards fixed mindset thinking, is that there are things you can do to develop more of a growth mindset.
Why do teachers and students need a growth mindset?
At the same time that neuroscientists were investigating the plasticity of the brain and discovering that the actions we take can increase neural growth, psychologists were gaining greater understanding of the link between mindset and achievement. In other words, “…if you believe your brain can grow, you behave differently.” (Dweck, 2015)
It has been shown in numerous studies that a growth mindset leads to increased effort, more perseverance, superior learning strategies and in turn creates greater long-term success. (Dweck, 2015) Children who have a growth mindset approach challenges with the view that, ‘If it seems hard then there must be another way. I just need to put in more effort to figure it out’.
Equally, it has been shown that children with a fixed mindset tend to give up more easily, avoid challenges and have fewer learning strategies.
It works like this. When children are motivated by performance goals and a desire to appear smart (fixed mindset), they have a tendency to avoid challenges and therefore, readily give up. Their view is that effort is futile and negative feedback is unhelpful. In addition, these children then feel threatened by others who are seemingly more successful, leading back to an increased desire to look intelligent or talented. They set out to prove themselves rather than improve themselves.
By contrast, children who are motivated by a desire to learn, eagerly embrace challenges and demonstrate persistence when they confront setbacks (growth mindset), believe that effort leads to improvement and eventual mastery. This determination for self-mastery then leads to a willingness to learn from constructive and accurate feedback, as well as from the accomplishments of others. As a result, these students continue to believe that they can grow and develop their intelligence and talents and are continuously on the look out for ways to do so.
Research shows that the language and particular mindset of significant adults (both teachers and parents), impacts the development of a child’s own mindset. Every word and action communicates to a child how to think and feel about themselves. Therefore the mindsets of teachers and parents are often mirrored in children’s mindsets and their self-talk.
This is evidenced in a study that Carol Dweck (2006) conducted. In classrooms where the teacher had a growth mindset and expected children to improve with effort, the students' results went up, and in a classroom where the teacher possessed a fixed mindset and believed that her students intellect was fixed, the students results did not greatly improve over the course of the year. This was measured by actual student data, not simply anecdotal observation.
As children's first teachers and influential role models, parents have a powerful impact on the foundation of their child's mindset.
How do parents and educators develop a growth mindset? And how do they help the children in their care to develop a growth mindset?
In order to adopt a true growth mindset, Dweck (2015) reminds parents, educators and coaches to remain in touch with their own fixed-mindset thoughts and actions. She suggests that by becoming familiar with their own responses, adults are in a better position to more effectively challenge and change their mindset towards an outlook of growth.
The way we talk to ourselves is critical to managing our mindset. As well as remaining conscious of their own mindset self-talk, parents and teachers have an important role to play in helping children to build this awareness, too.
The Language we use; the Praise we give
Since growth mindset has been popularised, there has been a spotlight shone on the importance of praising effort over intelligence and talent. Praise that is specific and focused on effort, process, strategies, improvement and overcoming difficulty, rather than intellect, talent, grades or results, is more likely to promote a growth mindset.
Mindset can be communicated in the language teachers use, the questions they ask and the way they respond to students’ struggles. Growth mindset statements might include, “When you learn a new way of solving a puzzle, it grows your puzzle brain.” “That feeling of it being hard writing your name, is the feeling of your brain growing.” Teachers could also ask questions such as, “If you had another chance what might you do differently?” “What new ideas will you try? What risks will you take?” or “What strategies will you use?” and “From whom could you learn more?" or "Who might be a person who could teach you more about this?”
By shifting our focus to the process of learning rather than the product, students develop a more positive attitude about their own learning capacity, which in turn is likely to increase their engagement and perpetuate a cycle of self-mastery.
Accurate feedback; Accurate self-evaluation
Dweck (2015) is careful to point out that growth mindset is about more than simply applying greater effort. So rather than blindly offering praise for effort, teachers need to be honest about a child’s current achievement and then, together, assist them to do something about it.
In addition to students being supported to apply greater effort, they need to be encouraged to try new ideas and seek input from others when they are stuck. Whilst praising effort is important, so is modeling and teaching a variety of strategies to call upon when faced with an obstacle or challenge. Students require a repertoire of approaches in order to learn and improve.
“The growth-mindset approach helps children feel good in the short and long terms, by helping them thrive on challenges and setbacks on their way to learning.” Dweck (2015)
Setbacks and challenges
The way adults respond to children's failures and mistakes influences what type of mindset is passed on to them. According to Dweck, (2017), when a parent reacts to a child's setbacks with anxiety or worries about the child's ability, it tends to foster a fixed mindset, even if the parent's own mindset is one oriented towards growth. A growth mindset is more likely to be developed when parents respond to a child's setbacks with interest, view mistakes as opportunities to learn and talk more openly with their children about the next steps for learning.
In promoting a growth mindset in students, what matters from teachers is whether they are focussed on teaching children to learn for understanding rather than simply memorising facts and procedures. When the goal of learning is to foster curiosity and gain deep understanding, rather than. focus on grades and end results, students are more likely to develop a growth mindset.
Explicit teaching of growth mindset and brain function
An often overlooked aspect of teaching growth mindset is sharing with children how their brains work. As well as talking about the mindsets, it is useful to discuss the brain, its parts, neural connections and how they grow. Teaching about cognition and metacognition and sharing specific strategies to develop these can help students master their own brains.
A number of research studies have demonstrated that in classrooms where explicit teaching about the plasticity of the brain, brain function and differing mindsets occurs, students have improved learning outcomes. Mindset Works, Inc. (2017)
Finally, promoting a classroom or family atmosphere that embraces acceptance of all children, their strengths and lesser strengths, provides a positive and encouraging platform for the development of growth mindset. With the right mindset, parents and teachers can motivate the children in their care and help them to accomplish great things.
Brock, A and Hundley, H 2016 The Growth Mindset Coach: A Teacher's Month-by-Month Handbook for Empowering Students to Achieve, Ulysses Press, United States.
Brock, A and Hundley H, 2017 The Growth Mindset Playbook: A Teacher's Guide to Promoting Student Success, Ulysses Press, United States
Dweck, C 2006, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Ballantine Books, United States.
Dweck, C 2015, ‘Growth Mindset, Revisited’, Education Week, vol. 35, Issue 05, pp. 20-24.
Dweck, C 2017, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, (revised edition), Robertson, United States.
Mindset Works, Inc., 2017, https://www.mindsetworks.com/science/
This article was originally written by Melissa Strader for ECTA (Early Childhood Teachers' Association) and published in their journal, in 2019. It has been rewritten with additional information for Enjoy Parenting.