Credit: Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service

Professor of psychology Carol Dweck talks about her research at a recent symposium on learning at Stanford.

Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck coined the phrase “growth mindset” as the belief that you can develop your abilities, and then watched as the term took hold as a meme for motivation on playgrounds and in classrooms across America.

Now she’s worried about its misapplication: Teachers who use growth mindset as a shorthand without understanding it; parents who attempt to teach a growth mindset by haranguing kids to try harder; schools that assume they can measure growth mindsets by asking teachers and students to grade how they handle adversity and solve complex problems.

Less than a decade after the publication of Dweck’s “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” research by her and others is flourishing, gamers are creating growth mindset games and school districts are paying attention to what are often referred to as “soft skills,” such as social emotional learning or non-cognitive skills like perseverance and self-control.

But with popularization comes the risk of oversimplification. Dweck explained what growth mindset is and isn’t at a recent Education Writers Association seminar, “The Hidden Value of Motivation,” at Stanford.

Praising a child’s intelligence, Dweck explained, creates a “fixed mindset” – the belief that how smart they are governs what children can and can’t do. So when they become stuck on a problem, children tend to give up, concluding they weren’t born bright enough or are just not good at math. Dweck said that’s self-defeating because children then become “less resilient in the face of obstacles.”

Its opposite, a growth mindset, while it may appear a truism on its face, can become a powerful motivator. Teaching children that the brain works like a muscle that gets stronger with practice reinforces persistence. Encouraging students to visualize brain synapses firing when they overcome challenges is not merely a metaphor: Brain studies that Dweck and other speakers cited showed surges in brain activity when students respond to mistakes.

A body of research confirms that a growth mindset can improve performance, Dweck said. A 2012 study of all Chilean 10th-graders by Stanford colleagues showed students with a growth mindset significantly outscored peers with a fixed mindset in math and reading, regardless of income. A study of how mothers praised children between ages 1 and 3 showed there was an impact on learning that the children retained years later. Those children who received more “process praise” commending effort, relative to other forms of praise, were more likely to work hard, confront challenges and better deal with failure – traits of a growth mindset – in 2nd grade.

But the growth mindset movement has pitfalls, too. Prodding students to increase effort alone, telling them they would have done better if they had tried harder, isn’t enough, Dweck said. Without suggesting learning strategies when students are stymied and judiciously offering help at the right time, a student may feel more incompetent if more effort doesn’t work. Telling students to “keep trying and you’ll get it” does not instill a growth mindset, Dweck said. “I call it nagging.”

Teachers who heap encouragement on students may assume they have adopted a growth mindset. But, Dweck said, “growth mindset is about closing the achievement gap, not about making low-achieving kids feel good in the moment but not learn in the long run.”

Teachers who incorporate a growth mindset also provide critical feedback and give students an opportunity to revise their work. They create a classroom where students are encouraged to take on challenges, try new strategies and acknowledge and explain their mistakes, she said.

Teachers must be in touch with themselves, too, and look for their own “fixed mindset triggers.” Do they feel dread when faced with a challenge, frustrated when they struggle with a problem, defensive and discouraged when they face criticism and setbacks? Do they assume that students who are struggling to learn have a fixed mindset and blame the children’s parents?

Most people, Dweck said, have neither a fixed nor a growth mindset; they’re a hybrid, and different situations and challenges bring out qualities of one or the other.

Teachers must work hard to create a growth mindset and a classroom where it thrives, Dweck said. “It requires a constant journey,” she said.

In her own words: Carol Dweck writes about the popularization of growth mindset in a recent Education Week commentary.


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  1. dhubbard 6 months ago6 months ago

    We learn from our mistakes and effort needs to be encouraged. Sometimes, though, we forget that redirection and appropriate guidance is necessary for that learning / depth of understanding to take place.

  2. Lamont Shipley 8 months ago8 months ago

    I am a 6th grade math teacher in Maryland and I am currently engrossed in trying build the growth mindsets of my students. I have recently come across a survey, that has been championed by Khan Academy, and it provided evidence of what my teacher intuition told me. Basically, my better performing classes have a higher growth mindset. I am so interested in this topic. Thanks for the clarifications outlined in this article.

  3. SD Parent 10 months ago10 months ago

    "Now she’s worried about its misapplication:...schools that assume they can measure growth mindsets by asking teachers and students to grade how they handle adversity and solve complex problems." As someone whose child attended a school where the citizenship grade morphed from being a good citizen to a measure of "soft skills," including how a student handled being challenged with difficult assignments, I was really hoping that this article would give some concrete examples of … Read More

    “Now she’s worried about its misapplication:…schools that assume they can measure growth mindsets by asking teachers and students to grade how they handle adversity and solve complex problems.” As someone whose child attended a school where the citizenship grade morphed from being a good citizen to a measure of “soft skills,” including how a student handled being challenged with difficult assignments, I was really hoping that this article would give some concrete examples of the misapplication of Ms. Dweck’s principles in the area of handling adversity. My child responded to this change in the citizenship evaluation and struggling with assignments as “They expect perfection from us–it’s impossible!” and essentially gave up on school both academically and emotionally…

  4. Mary 10 months ago10 months ago

    This statement of Carol was highly expected as it sharpens the understanding of growth-mindset. In all schools of my kids I have never experienced any kind of feedback process handled by the teacher. “They just do not seem to be very interested in developing together” said one of my kids. Why not??

  5. Michael 10 months ago10 months ago

    A growth mind set starts with the teacher. I believe a majority of people in general have erected walls figuratively that inhibit their own growth. How can you give something you don't possess yourself? If you are not in the "present moment" of learning and overcoming the challenges of acquiring a new skill, your words ring rather hollow. You must be practicing what you are preaching. With this type of understanding, you are … Read More

    A growth mind set starts with the teacher. I believe a majority of people in general have erected walls figuratively that inhibit their own growth. How can you give something you don’t possess yourself? If you are not in the “present moment” of learning and overcoming the challenges of acquiring a new skill, your words ring rather hollow. You must be practicing what you are preaching.

    With this type of understanding, you are able to encourage and foster a healthy growing and learning environment. As an educator you must allow the learning process to be. The journey cannot be constantly punctuated with “testing”. Assessing and evaluating both by the teacher and the student must be ongoing. This evaluative process naturally occurs when there is joy in learning. When you are appreciated as a learner you thrive and grow. This concept is rather simple to comprehend yet, not easy to implement. Furthermore, we must not confuse learning with some artificial metric of achievement.

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