Educators educating Educators

Jan 19

November 13 Fixed-Growth Mindset


Monthly Ed Tip for November 2013

After completing a difficult task, can a simple sentence have an effect on how people react to failure? Does the simple phase praising a student’s intelligence (“You’re so smart”) rather than the effort they put in to achieve the task (“You must of worked hard.”) be the difference to their future success and failures in the school, the workplace, and in life?

Our society worships talent, and many people assume that possessing superior intelligence or ability – along with confidence in that ability – is a recipe for success. In fact, however, more than 30 years of scientific investigating by Carol Dweck suggests that an overemphasis on intellect or talent leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unwilling to remedy their shortcomings.

Carol Dweck, a world-renowned psychologist, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor at Sanford, who before that taught at Columbia for 15 years, as well as Harvard and the University of Illinois, posits that it is not just our abilities and talent that bring success – but whether we approach them with a fixed or growth mindset. Dweck’s research on achievement and success concludes that praising intelligence and ability does not foster self-esteem and lead to accomplishment, but may actually jeopardize success.

Praise is intricately connected to how students view intelligences. Praising children’s innate abilities and intelligences reinforces their belief that they are smart or gifted and to develop a “fixed mind-set” view of themselves. Such children hold an implicit belief that intelligence is innate and fixed, and that they have a certain amount of intelligence, and that’s that. They become excessively concerned with how smart they are, seeking tasks that will prove their intelligence and avoiding ones that might no. The desire to learn takes a backseat and making thriving to learn seem far less important than being (or looking) smart.

A fixed mind-set belief also makes a person see challenges, mistakes, and even the need to exert effort as threats to their ego rather than as opportunities to improve. And it causes them to lose confidence and motivation when the work is no longer easy for them. It can also prevent young athletes or people in the workforce and even marriages from living up to their potential.

On the other hand, other students believe their intellectual ability is something they can develop through effort and education and demonstrate a “growth mind-set.” When students believe that they can develop their intelligence, they focus on doing just that. Not worrying how smart they will appear, they take on challenges and stick to them. Studies have shown that teaching people to have a “growth mind-set,” which encourages a focus on effort rather than on intelligence or talent, helps make them into high achievers in school and in life.

The fixed versus growth mind-set belief extends into the working world, personal relationships, and whether a student will cheat on a test. In the working world, bosses with a fixed mind-set are less willing to admit to errors and remedy their deficiencies at work and in their relationships. They are more likely to see criticism as reflecting their underlying level of competence and are less likely to seek or welcome feedback from their employees, ad assuming other people are not capable of changing either, are less likely to mentor their underlings. Managers with a growth mind-set see themselves as a work-in-progress and understand their need to improve.

In personal relationships, Dweck has used her mind-set theory to research a person’s willingness or unwillingness to deal with difficulties. She has found that fixed mind-set people think that human personality traits are more or less fixed and relationship repair seems largely futile. They are less likely to tackle problems in their relationships and to try to solve them. On the other hand, a person with a growth mind-set believes people can change and grow, and are more confident that confronting concerns in a relationship will lead to resolutions.

Praising people for success not only reduces performance and affects relationships, it also increases cheating. The statement “you’re so smart,” vs. “you must of worked hard,” had a discernable effect on the future performance of students. Dweck discovered the “smart” ones were less willing to take learning risks in the future, as well as protecting their status by lying.

In fact, those praised for intelligence were found to be three times more likely to lie about their performance than those praised for effort - even when they knew they could not be identified.

Teaching students and faculty that they have the ability to transform and improve their minds has incredibly positive and exciting potential for all involved in education. According to Dweck, students perform better in school when they and their teachers believe that intelligence is not fixed, but can be developed. For  children with learning differences, she believes that “teaching students intelligence can be grown is especially powerful for students who belong to typically stereotyped groups.” Growth mind-sets focus on effort and motivate all students to overcome challenging work.

A belief in growth mind-sets sends a powerful message to students and can be transformational for all school stakeholders. It tells students that we believe in their potential and are committed to helping them get smarter. It transmits a message to the children that we value and praise them for taking on challenges, and exerting effort, and that working hard to learn new things makes you smarter by making the mind grow new connections. But most importantly, a school that fully embraces a growth mind-set shows children that school is not a place that judges them; it is a place where mistakes are accepted and in fact, are expected, as part of the learning process and children are free to develop at their personal pace.



“If we can control the attention of the child, we solve the problems of education.” Maria Montessori

This month Ed Tip will examine how to improve students' learning by activating their attention.